Strangely, officers arrest Copts; roof collapses after Muslim suspects set fire to church building.

ISTANBUL, July 17 (Compass Direct News) – Villagers in Ezbet Basillious, Minya suspect local police in Egypt of corruption and collusion after two Copts were arrested for an arson attack on their own house church on Saturday (July 11).

Egyptian State Security Investigations (SSI) officers later arrested three Muslim suspects in accordance with eyewitness testimony that local police had ignored. The suspects were seen entering the Church of St. Abaskharion Kellini with cans of kerosene and leaving it shortly after, shouting “Allahu Akbar [God is great].”

The two Copts who were arrested, 35-year-old Reda Gamal and Fulla Assad, 30, are still in custody.

Suspicions of police collusion come not only from the inexplicable arrests of the Copts but also from the lack of police presence while the church was burning. Guards who were stationed outside the property had left their posts, and according to some reports they had moved to a nearby café and were drinking tea while the property burned.

“It sounds like a pre-arranged situation, that they [the arsonists] knew this was the agreed time, [when] the guards were away,” a source told Compass. “Mahmoud Muhammad Hussein, the head guard, and Mustafa Moussa, one of the village guards, were heard telling people, ‘Say Reda set fire to the church.’ So the local police were involved.”

The attack in Ezbet Basillious, 90 kilometers south of Cairo, took place shortly before noon. The perpetrators entered the building where the church met using a connecting door from an adjoining residence. The fire cracked walls and caused the roof to cave in.

It took police two hours to arrive at the scene, according to Suleiman Faiz, a local schoolteacher.

Three Copts were taken to the police station, initially only for questioning – Gamal, Assad and Assad’s 75-year-old mother-in-law. Assad and her mother-in-law live in a home next to the house used by the church, and it was through their connecting door that the attackers entered the locked building.

The two women were present in the house at the time and witnessed three men carrying cans of kerosene. Mary Abdelmassih, a reporter for the Assyrian International News Agency, said the arsonists threatened them at knife-point to remain quiet and not call for help.

After questioning, Assad and her mother-in-law returned home. The following day Assad was arrested, and at press time she and Gamal were still being held.

“This Copt, Gamal, they took him as a pawn in order that later they could twist the church’s arm to give up its rights,” Abdelmassih said. “This happens every time, there is no change in the scenario at all.”

Buildings in Egypt require government permission to be used for religious gatherings, and typically churches find it very difficult to obtain.

Officials promised the Abaskharion Kellini house church a prayer license on July 3 that would enable the building in which it meets to be used as a place of prayer; the congregation has struggled in vain for 30 years to construct another church building for worship. Having received verbal assurance that a prayer license would be granted for the building in which it met, the diocese’s bishop held a consecration service there, and SSI officials then closed the house church and placed it under guard pending formal permission.

The attack marked the third recent incident of violence against the Coptic community in Minya, with new church premises being the precipitating factor in each case. Muslim mobs on June 6 attacked a building in Ezbet Boushra-East on suspicion that it would be converted into a worship place, and the same thing happened on July 3 at a building in Ezbet Guirgis Bey.

“People are really fed up, and if they lose patience there will be fighting in the streets,” a source who requested anonymity told Compass. “A lot of young people are getting so exhausted from this persecution that they might do anything; they’ve had enough.”

Schoolteacher Faiz, 34, told Compass that initially the attack on the Abaskharion Kellini house church made him and others angry.

“You can imagine the amount of anger one would have to a very unfair situation like this,” he said. “Equality and justice for everybody is essential. We love Egypt and would like it to take its place among the respectable nations on earth.”

Faiz said he hopes some day Egypt becomes free of corrupt police in order to have full freedom of religion.

“We trust that these little actions and these little conspiracies from low-ranking police forces, and those who have infiltrated police with radical ideas, which are against the country’s interest, are found out and corrected,” he said. “Because we still trust the higher ranking people in leadership.”

Report from Compass Direct News


State fails to set aside funds to transport key witness to hearing.

MALATYA, Turkey, June 25 (Compass Direct News) – A suspected “middleman” between the alleged masterminds and young executors in the stabbing murders of three Christians here failed to appear at a hearing on Friday (June 19) because of a procedural error.

The state prosecutor’s office failed to set aside funds to transport Varol Bulent Aral to the southeastern city of Malatya from Istanbul, where he is held, the court announced. Aral is the second suspected middleman connecting the five young murderers to “deep state” masterminds who allegedly plotted to kill Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske.

The three Christians were bound and tortured before they were murdered on April 18, 2007 at Zirve Publishing Co., where they worked. Suspects Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, Abuzer Yildirim and alleged ring-leader Emre Gunaydin were caught at the scene of the crime.

While in prison, Gunaydin testified to the state prosecutor that Aral, a journalist allegedly attached to a far-reaching political conspiracy known as Ergenekon, had contacted him and instructed him to carry out the murders. Gunaydin had also testified that Huseyin Yelki, who worked as a volunteer at the Zirve office, had planned details of the crime with him.

The court heard Yelki’s testimony in the last two hearings, but judges could not arrive at conclusive evidence connecting him to the murders. At the May hearing, Gunaydin retracted his statement that he and Yelki met to strategize before the murders. An order last month to investigate Yelki’s bank accounts for links to suspicious activity has yielded no new information, judges stated at the last hearing. He is still obligated, however, to attend every court hearing.

At a May hearing, the court also requested a list of people who have visited Gunaydin since the beginning of this year, suspecting that he may be under pressure to retract statements he has made implicating middlemen in the murders. The court is still evaluating the list of visitors it received.

Gunaydin’s girlfriend, Burcu Polat, was also expected to testify on Friday but did not appear. The court ordered Polat to appear at the next hearing and is petitioning the prosecutor’s office to funnel the necessary funds for Aral’s transportation from Istanbul to Malatya.

Erdal Dogan, one of a team of plaintiff lawyers in the Malatya case, told reporters after the short hearing that Aral’s absence resulted from a great oversight on the part of the Justice Ministry.

“They didn’t bring the witness due to a lack of funds,” said Dogan. “That the Justice Ministry knew the court date and didn’t put money aside for the witness to come is a tragic state of affairs.”

When asked whether the case will be joined to the ongoing Ergenekon court hearings, Dogan said the court is still researching possible links between the Malatya murders and those of Armenian Christian and newspaper editor Hrant Dink, who was killed three months before the men in Malatya, and Catholic priest Andrea Santoro, who was slain in the Black Sea coastal town of Trabzon in February 2006.

Link with ‘Insulting Turkishness’ Trial?

In Silivri, the case against Turkish Christian converts Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal for “insulting Turkishness” under controversial Article 301 continues to drag on two years after they were charged – leading the defendants to wonder if the “deep state” is also behind their ordeal.

Tastan and Topal were charged after speaking about their faith. The decision to try them under the disputed article came after three young men – Fatih Kose, Alper Eksi and Oguz Yilmaz – stated that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam is a primitive, fictitious religion that results in terrorism and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Prosecutors have yet to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms. Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

At a June 24, 2008 hearing, two witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses – including one of the original complainants, Kose – have failed to show up on various trial dates.

On May 28 the court, though yet again reaching no conclusions, ordered five witnesses to appear at the next hearing, set for Oct. 15.

“This is malicious,” Topal told Compass. “Every time they call someone else, find something new to accuse us of. They have called everyone, and this time they’re calling people from the judiciary… claiming that we met with them. It just keeps going on.”

Three of the five lawyers ordered to appear at the next hearing are workers in the country’s judicial system.

“If they would just make up their mind and at least pronounce us guilty, we would have a chance to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, but now there’s just uncertainty,” said Topal.

He said he and Tastan are convinced that their trial is a set-up from Turkey’s “deep state” and is connected to the murders of the Christians in Malatya.

“In my mind, our court case and these murders were orchestrated,” Tastan said.

He described how, after they came out of a hearing held the day the three Christians were murdered in Malatya, members of the press and others gathered outside the courthouse in Silivri.

“Among the crowd, people yelled out to us, ‘We will cut you up too. We will kill you too,’” he said. “So when did they gather these people? When did they come? When did they learn of the event to know to yell at us if there wasn’t a connection between the two cases?”

Two key figures pressing the Article 301 charges and promoting sensational media coverage of the Silivri trial are now jailed themselves, unable to attend the hearings. Both ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz and spokesperson Sevgi Erenerol of the Turkish Orthodox Church – a Turkish nationalist denomination with no significant following – are accused of playing leading roles in Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy to overthrow the government.

“I think that it was the same people who orchestrated this,” said Tastan, referring to Ergenekon.

Report from Compass Direct News


Persecution has diminished for some Christians in 2008, but it has increased for others. Overall, Todd Nettleton with Voice of the Martyrs believes it is worse than it used to be and will continue to worsen in 2009, reports MNN.

“I think there are situations where it’s worse. I think there are probably some isolated situations where things are improving a little bit, but I think on the whole, it’s at least as bad and probably worse than 2007, or worse than five or ten years ago,” said Nettleton.

Persecution has worsened drastically in Orissa, a state in India. Hindu radicals in that region have been rampaging against Christians since August.

“Orissa is probably the location of the worst persecution that’s going on right now in the world,” Nettleton said, “a place where they’re trying to wipe out the Christian church; a place where tens of thousands of Christians have had to flee their homes. Many of them fled literally into the jungle to escape the attacks of radical Hindus.”

In the months leading up to the Olympic games in Beijing, many hoped that the publicity surrounding that event would bring more liberty for the people of China. Unfortunately, such has not been the case.

“The concern that we had when the Olympics ended was that although the world has been watching, the Chinese continued persecuting Christians. What will they do now that the world’s not watching anymore?” Nettleton said. “Even in the months since the Olympic games, we have seen Christians arrested. We’ve seen house church services raided. So I don’t think it’s markedly better. I think it’s really about the same.”

Nettleton is not discouraged by the fact that persecution has not decreased and probably will not. He has observed that, ironically, persecution actually increases the strength of God’s church.

“One of the amazing things is that as persecution increases, the church tends to grow. As the church tends to grow, the persecution increases,” he said. “Christ promised that His followers would be persecuted, and that is coming true around the world. But that also means the church is growing. More people are coming to know Christ in a personal way.”

VOM’s biggest challenge nowadays “is to know how best to respond in a given situation of persecution,” Nettleton said.

“The challenge for us is to know the best way to support the church in restricted nations, the best way to come alongside them and lift them up, support them, and encourage them.”

Nettleton is excited about VOM’s “vital role” in connecting believers with their Christian brothers and sisters all over the world.

“When we go into a restricted nation and we’re able to deliver help, we say, ‘This is from Christians in America who love you and are praying for you during this time of suffering.’ Then when we come home and talk to the church in America we say, ‘Our brothers and sisters in restricted nations are praying for you here in America.’ We get to be a bridge between the two churches, and it’s really an exciting role that God has called Voice of the Martyrs to play.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Human rights advocates look to international arena for help.

ISTANBUL, November 24 (Compass Direct News) – Egyptian human rights workers are looking to international bodies for support against Muslim judges who use sharia (Islamic law) to undermine custody rights of Christian mothers.

Despite provisions such as Egyptian law’s Article 20, which dictates that minors should remain with their mother until age 15, judges consistently rule in favor of Muslim fathers in custody disputes with Christian mothers. Islamist judges typically resort to Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which states that “principles of Islamic law are the principal source of legislation.”

Sharia-based decisions that rule contrary to Egyptian statutory law have led the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent human rights organization, to protest before the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR). The ACHPR was formed by the African Union to oversee the implementation of its Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

An investigation, decision and recommendation by the African Commission to the Egyptian government would lend considerable weight to the EIPR’s efforts to enforce Egyptian Personal Status Law, which states explicitly the mother’s right to custody of her children until they reach age 15.

The EIPR’s complaint before the African Commission accuses the Egyptian government of violating the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Egypt ratified in 1984, the human rights organization said in a Nov. 10 statement. The EIPR referred to the case of 13-year-old twins Andrew and Mario Medhat Ramses, whom an appeals court awarded to their father Medhat Ramses Labib on Sept. 24 after a custody battle.

“The government’s treatment of the boys’ mother, Kamilia Lotfy Gaballah, constituted discrimination based on her religion and violated her right to equal protection before the law,” the EIPR stated. “The case also charges that the government violated the two boys’ right to freedom of religion and contravened the state’s legal obligation to protect child rights.”

The boys’ father, Labib, converted to Islam in 1999 after divorcing Gaballah to marry another woman. In 2006 Labib altered the official religious status of the boys and later applied for custody.

“Obviously in this custody decision, it is a flagrant disregard of the Personal Status Law, which ensures custody for the mother until the children are 15 years old,” said Hossam Bahgat of the EIPR. “In this case the judiciary chose to ignore statutory law and apply their own interpretation of sharia.”

The long-running case of the twins exemplifies the problem but is in no way unique. Sisters Ashraqat Gohar, 12, and Maria Gohar, 8, were taken from their Christian mother in January and placed in the custody of their Muslim father, Wafiq Gohar, despite his criminal record and the 12-year-old’s claims that he is an alcoholic.

The court ruling referred to Wafiq Gohar’s fears that “[the girls] would cherish a religion other than Islam, eat foods that are banned in Islam and go to church” as determining factors in their decision.

“It is a big problem we are facing in Egypt,” said Naguib Gobrail, president of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations. “The decision of the court clearly stated that according to Article 2, the main source [of legislation] is sharia, so the judge cannot apply the natural law.”

More recently, 3-year-old Barthenia Rezqallah of Tanta, near Cairo, remains in her father’s custody, despite a court order that she be returned to her mother pending a final verdict. Police have turned a blind eye to the court order out of fears that the child will practice Christianity rather than Islam, said Gobrail.

Gobrail said that international pressure may be the solution.

“Maybe a connection with someone of international character connecting with President [Hosni] Mubarak is the only way,” he said, “because he has the authority to give orders to the National Assembly to issue a law to make things equal between Muslims and Copts, especially for the children.”  

Report from Compass Direct News