Counting the Numbers: A Hopeful Sign of Some Change

The article below is about one megachurch pastor in the United States and his questioning of marketing values in the church today. I think there are some hopeful signs in his comments, but there is no convincing evidence of a better way about to be trod.

For more see:


Sodom found? The quest for the lost city of destruction – Part 1

By Brian Nixon

Special to ASSIST News Service

I met Dr. Steven Collins in the reception area of Trinity Southwest University in Albuquerque, where he serves as provost and professor. Instead of staying at the school, we headed off to a local coffee shop.

Dr. Collins didn’t look like your average jet-setting archeologist: no Indiana-Jones leather jacket, hat, or whip. Instead, Steve wore jeans, sandals, and a “Life is Good” t-shirt. And for Steve, that motto is playing out in his own life.

With his newest discoveries in Jordan, life is turning out very good for the unassuming archeologist from New Mexico.

I first got word of his recent finding at Calvary of Albuquerque, where Steve sat down for an interview with Senior Pastor, Skip Heitzig. Steve brought some convincing evidence of a monumentally significant find. Dr. Collins contends that he may have discovered the historic city of Sodom.

Steve told me in our interview that his interest in the location of Sodom began in 1996. Then, Steve was working on a dig in the West Bank north of Jerusalem, the site of biblical Ai, but was also leading archeology tours in the Near East.

It was on one of these trips that Steve began to question the traditional site of Sodom, what is known as the “Southern Theory.” This theory attributes the site of Sodom to the southern region of the Dead Sea.

“I began to read Genesis 13-19, and realized that the traditional site did not align itself with the geographical profile described in the text,” Steve told me.

“Now let me say,” he continued, “that many scholars don’t have a high view of Scripture. Some even frown upon using biblical texts as a tool for location designation. My philosophy is that the text is generally reliable and can—and should—be used (at bare minimum) as a basic guide for a geographical profile.”

“When I read how the author of Genesis described the area of Sodom and then looked at the area of the traditional site in the Southern region, I said: ‘This cannot be the place. There are too many differences of description.’

“Sadly, because of my work at the site of Ai, I was unable to really investigate and do research on my initial thoughts. So I let it sit for over five years.”

The geographical point at issue, according to Steve, is how the text in Genesis describes the region of the Kikkar, understood as “the disc of Jordan.”

Dr. Collins continued, “When the Bible uses the description of Kikkar, it is only referring to the circular region of the Jordan Valley east of Jericho and north of the Dead Sea.”

“This region is the breadbasket of the area, full of freshwater and farmland,” he explained. “All of this is interesting to me because Kikkar can also mean “flat bread,” like a tortilla here in New Mexico.”

So what’s the issue?

According to Collins, “The traditional “Southern Theory” site of Sodom does not have the geographical parallels described in the text. Namely: 1. One can see the whole area from the hills above Jericho (Bethel/Ai), 2. It must be a well-watered place (described, “like Egypt.”), 3. It has a river running through it (the Jordan), and 4. It must follow the travel route of Lot” (who went to the other side of the Jordan, eastward, away from Jericho.)

Though the traditional site does not have any of these geographical indicators, the site in Jordan, Tel-al-Hamman, does. How did Dr. Collins become aware of this site? That is a fascinating story in and of itself—which we’ll turn to in Part 2.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Lawyers try to put financial pressure on husband to secure 13-year-old girl’s release.

ISTANBUL, December 16 (Compass Direct News) – After a judge yesterday placed new financial and social pressure on the captors of a Pakistani girl who was kidnapped and converted to Islam, attorneys have guarded optimism they can return her to custody of her Christian parents.

Judge Malik Saeed Ijaz ordered the girl’s husband, Amjad Ali, to pay a dowry of 100,000 rupees (US$1,275) and allow her parents visitation rights, two actions required by typical Pakistani marriage protocol. At press time he had done neither.

The judge gave Saba Masih, 13, the opportunity to talk with her family during yesterday’s hearing, but she remained mostly silent behind her veil, offering only blunt replies.

“I don’t want to see my parents. They are Christians and I am a Muslim,” she said, according to her parents’ attorney.

Her younger sister Aneela Masih, who was also kidnapped but returned to her family three months ago, pleaded with her older sister to return home. The 10-year-old told her that Christmas was coming and she didn’t want her sister to spend it with those “who are not our people.”

Saba Masih appeared at the Multan branch of Lahore’s High Court yesterday along with her Muslim husband and his family. Her parents filed a contempt petition last month against her captors for failing to follow Pakistani marriage protocol.

Islamic law (sharia), however, gives a wife the right to relinquish a dowry. Lawyers said they fear that the Muslim family will pressure Saba Masih to claim this right in order to offset growing financial pressure.

Lawyers hope that if her mother can visit her, it will convince her to leave her husband and come home to the family; her family believes he has threatened her with violence if she attempts to rejoin them.

At Monday’s hearing, Saba Masih still appeared reluctant to return to her family. Relatives said they were praying that she would change her mind and that the captors would lose their influence over her.

“The main thing is Saba must be ready herself to come back,” said her uncle, Khalid Raheel, the family spokesman. “But she isn’t ready to come back yet, and I don’t know how they are convincing her.”

On Wednesday (Dec. 17) the judge is expected to adjourn the case and issue a deed requiring Ali to pay the dowry at the convenience of the Masih family. The judge yesterday threatened Ali with prison time if he failed to carry out this order.

Akbar Durrani, attorney for the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), said the attorneys might try to use Aneela Masih’s testimony of kidnapping to take the case to the Supreme Court if other options fail.


Prostitution Business

The Christian family’s lawyer said the attempt to force Ali to pay a dowry was a tactic to mount financial pressure on Saba Masih’s husband and to convince her to return home. Her family and their lawyers believe she has stayed with her Muslim husband because he and his family have issued death threats.

The Christian family’s chances of winning run against the judicial status quo for Pakistani religious minorities, but the new push comes after a Sept. 9 ruling that returned Aneela Masih to her parents, a rare legal victory for non-Muslims.

“We filed this [contempt] petition so she would come into the court, see her family and hopefully change her statement,” said Durrani of CLAAS. “We also want to put pressure on the Muslim family members because they are afraid of litigation, since they have to pay all these legal expenses.”

Aneela and Saba Masih were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Their parents say local fruit vendor Muhammad Arif Bajwa and three others kidnapped them in Chawk Munda, a small town in south Punjab.

Saba Masih was married to Ali the next day. Bajwa and Ali registered a case with the police on June 28 for custody of the girls based on their alleged conversion to Islam.

Local residents regard the men as serial kidnappers with connections to a human trafficking ring. The girls’ first defense attorney believed they could have been raped and sold to a brothel.

Ironically, attorneys said, the kidnappers’ alleged desire to exploit Saba Masih may now be the best hope of her returning to her parents, as keeping her has become not lucrative but increasingly costly with court hearings continuing and legal fees multiplying.

“These [kidnappers] don’t have an emotional link to Saba,” Durrani told Compass by phone. “They are in the business of prostitution and only wanted to use these girls for their business.”

Prosecuting attorneys said they have a growing optimism that they can regain custody of Saba Masih, something they thought unlikely two months ago.


Long, Hard Battle

In previous hearings, a judge allowed Saba Masih to choose whether or not she would return to her family, even though Pakistan marriage law requires the approval of legal guardians at the age of 16.

The judge determined that her age was 17 based on her testimony and a report by a medical board pressured by Muslim groups to inflate her age. He did not accept as evidence her birth certificate and baptismal record that showed her age as 13.

Younis Masih and his wife first saw their daughters after their kidnapping at a July hearing. The girls were in the company of 16 Muslims and were said to be under pressure to claim they had converted to Islam.

After Aneela Masih returned to her family in September, she claimed that their captors threatened to kill them and their family if they did not do everything asked of them.

Previously it had been reported that she was raped while in captivity, but there was no medical evidence that she was sexually abused or manhandled, lawyers said.

Her sister appears to be suffering, Durrani said.

“The family has told us that Saba Masih is not in good condition – most of the time she cries and is not satisfied there,” Durrani said.


Recurrent Problem

Kidnapping of Christians in the Muslim-majority nation of 170 million is not uncommon. Many captors believe they will not be convicted if caught due to the penal code’s influence by sharia, which grants non-Muslims second-class status in society.

Every year there are cases of Pakistani Christian children kidnapped, killed or exploited by those who believe their parents are powerless.

Last month a Muslim family in Nankan kidnapped the 7-year-old son of Pakistani Christian Binyamin Yusef, 30, over a land dispute. Two days later police found his son’s body, which showed signs of torture and rape.

Police did not register the case when Yusef initially approached them. CLAAS representatives hope to open court action against the alleged perpetrators.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Video testimony, reenactment of crime scene hints at hearts of killers, martyrs.

ISTANBUL, November 25 (Compass Direct News) – Last week’s court hearing on the bloody murder of three Christians in Turkey’s southeastern city of Malatya paved the way for further investigations into the connection between the five defendants and shadowy elements of the Turkish state linked to criminal activities.

The 13th hearing at Malatya’s Third Criminal Court on Friday (Nov. 21) in the murders of Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske presented little new evidence. No witnesses were called to testify.

The court prosecutor and plaintiff lawyers, however, are pursuing proof that there are links between the murderers and Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy in recent murders.

A separate criminal investigation has linked the cabal to high-profile attacks, murders and plans to engineer domestic chaos and ultimately overthrow the government. Evidence in the Malatya case indicates that a local journalist, Varol Bulent Aral, acted as a bridge between the five murder suspects and Ergenekon.

Plaintiff attorneys also believe that Aral incited the suspected ringleader of the attack, Emre Gunaydin, to murder by convincing him foreign missionaries were connected to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a domestic outlawed terrorist organization.

According to a Nov. 14 statement, Gunaydin testified that Aral promised him state immunity for the planned attacks. In court last week, however, he refuted the claim and said he hadn’t met with Aral.

On April 18, 2007 the three Christians were tied up, stabbed and tortured for several hours before their throats were slit in what Turkish media have dubbed “the Malatya massacre” at the Zirve Publishing Co. office in Malatya.

Gunaydin along with Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim, who have been in jail for the past 19 months, are accused of the murder. They are all between 19 and 21 years old.

Per their request, plaintiff attorneys have received the Ergenekon file from the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul and have reviewed it for connections with the Malatya murders. It is now under investigation by the court prosecutors and judges.

“We are talking about a room with five guys and three men,” said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who leads the team of plaintiff lawyers. “There is no doubt this is first degree murder; a barbaric act. These things will increase their term of punishment to three counts of murder and three life imprisonment terms each, as well as other crimes such as preventing freedom, stealing and others. We don’t have a question about this.”

The question that remains, according to the plaintiff attorneys, is the identity of the real powers behind the bloody attack. Cengiz said he and the court now have no doubt there were greater forces behind the Malatya murders.

“I am 100 percent sure – it is the impression of the prosecutor and no one has doubts – there are sources behind these young men, but we can’t identify them,” Cengiz told Compass.

The plaintiff team hopes to bring up to 21 witnesses to the stand in subsequent hearings in order to make connections between Ergenekon and the Malatya murders clear.

“We believe all of them are somehow connected and have relevant information to this case,” he said.

If the list is accepted, he said the trial may go on for another year. “But if nothing comes out last minute, it may be over in three or four months,” he said.


Missionary Activities on Trial, Again

At Friday’s hearing, defense lawyers reiterated their position that the five young men acted in response to missionary efforts, suggesting that such activities were sufficiently nefarious to incite the violent murders.

The prosecution team rebutted the statement, saying that according to constitutional Articles 9 and 24, people have the right to share their faith, and no person or authority can follow and record those activities. They pointed out that the five defendants had been collecting data and planning the murders at least eight months before they carried them out.

Defense lawyers also requested that the prison where the defendants are held conduct a psychological exam of the defendants – especially Gurler – because they were all under stress due to suspected ringleader Gunaydin’s threats.


Revisiting Crime Scene

Those present in the courtroom on Friday viewed year-old video footage of defendants Ozdemir, Ceker and Gunaydin each walking through the crime scene shortly after their arrest, describing how they attacked, stabbed and sliced the throats of Aydin, Geske and finally Yuksel.

A sobering silence prevailed in the courtroom as judges, lawyers, local press, Turkish Protestant observers and others watched Ozdemir and later Ceker walk through the Zirve publishing house and re-enact the murders over the dried blood pools of the three martyrs. In their accounts, they implicated Gunaydin and Salih as the main aggressors, although all accuse the others of participating in the murders.

During the video presentation, judges and lawyers noticed suspect Gurler laughing at the witnesses’ testimonies at the crime scene. In the video, Ozdemir and Ceker testified that they had told Gurler and Gunaydin they couldn’t take the violence.

In the video testimony, Ozdemir said he told Gurler while he was stabbing Aydin, the first to be killed, “That’s enough, I can’t do this.” Ozdemir looked down during his video testimony, forlorn and unable to watch.

Gurler later told angry judges that he was laughing because all the witnesses’ statements in the video were false.

“They’re lying against me,” he said.

In his video account of the murder scene, Ceker described how the five young men and the three Zirve staff members talked “a lot” about religion before the suspects attacked Aydin, tying him and lying him on the floor face down.

Gunaydin confronted Aydin about his missionary activities and asked him why he was acting “against Turks” before Gurler sliced his throat, according to Ceker’s original statement.

In Gunaydin’s video testimony, profusely sweating, he described the repeated stabbings of the victims, re-enacting his arm movements and describing how Ozdemir held a gun at the victims, threatening them.

“I didn’t look,” Gunaydin said after describing one of the violent stabbing scenes. “I’m weak about these things … I can’t even cut chicken.”

He described how while Yildirim and Gurler were repeatedly stabbing Geske, the victim lifted his hands up in a gesture of prayer. Gunaydin also described how Yuksel, injured by the stabbing while tied and on the floor, cried out in Turkish, “Mesih, Mesih [Messiah],” between moans before they stuffed a towel in his mouth to silence him.

After the court showed his video testimony, Gunaydin stood up and told the court he had just gotten out of the hospital at that time, and that that account was not how he now remembered the events of April 18, 2007.

In their video testimony, the young men described how the phone and doorbell were ringing while they were torturing the Christians. Before coming out the door with their hands in the air, they showed police interviewing them in the video how they had disposed of their guns and bloodied knives in the Zirve office.

Gunaydin escaped through a window, fell and was severely injured. On Friday plaintiff lawyers requested from the court an investigation into who entered the crime scene while Gunaydin was in the hospital.

When the defendants were asked whether they knew of Aral’s alleged offer of state protection to Gunaydin or a monetary award for the murders, they claimed to have no information.

“I never saw a check in the course of these events, nor did I hear anything about it,” said Gurler. “I only knew that Emre had a bank statement.”

Yildirim also claimed ignorance: “I don’t remember anything about a check. If Emre had one, it would have stayed in his pocket; he wouldn’t have showed it to us.”

When asked about meetings between Gunaydin and Aral, the defendants said they hadn’t witnessed any between the two. They did admit to having spoken to Aral at a sports complex about a different matter, but they knew him as “Mehmet.”


Foreign Press, Organizations Negligent

Twelve of the nearly 20 private and human rights lawyers from around Turkey that compose the plaintiff team attended the court hearing last week. Cengiz said the primary purpose of the plaintiff lawyers, who are working pro bono, was to create a legal “common eye” that is watching all related cases such as Ergenekon and the murder of Hrant Dink, editor of Armenian newspaper Agos, who was murdered months before the three Christians in Malatya.

But the plaintiff lawyers pointed out that very few international bodies and foreign press members are actively monitoring the case, even though in their estimation the Malatya murders are directly linked to uncovering deep elements of Turkish corruption.

“This case has tremendous implications for democracy and deep-state elements in Turkey,” said Cengiz, who has received numerous threats since the beginning of the trial and lives under 24-hour protection.

“What we have here is a concrete act of the Ergenekon gang and it’s interesting.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Journalist allegedly told ringleader officials would not prosecute him for killing Christians.

MALATYA, Turkey, October 21 (Compass Direct News) – Lawyers and judges in the case of three Christians murdered here in April 2007 are continuing to investigate whether the attack was masterminded by troubled youths or shadowy elements of the Turkish state.

Plaintiff attorneys believe the first witness at the hearing on Thursday (Oct. 16), local journalist Varol Bulent Aral, incited the suspected ringleader of the attacks to murder by convincing him foreign missionaries were connected to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a domestic outlawed terrorist organization. The suspected ringleader, Emre Gunaydin, testified that Aral promised him state immunity for the planned attacks.

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske, were brutally tortured and killed at a publishing house in this southeastern city on April 18, 2007.

Gunaydin, along with Salih Gürler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker and Abuzer Yildirim, who have been in jail for the past 18 months, are accused of the murder. They are all between 19 and 21 years old.

The court subpoenaed Aral for the last four hearings, but he failed to show at each one. The 32-year-old testified at Thursday’s hearing at Malatya Third Criminal Court under police custody since he was arrested on Oct. 2 for carrying a false ID.

Gunaydin said during the hearing that Aral had promised him state protection for the murders.

“He had promised me state support,” he said. “[Aral] should explain this to the court.”

But when the judge asked whether Aral had convinced him to commit the murders, Gunaydin claimed his right to remain silent.

Aral, however, denied promising clemency to Gunaydin for murdering the three Christians. He claimed to only have discussed only the PKK with Gunaydin, not Christian missionary activity.

In Gunaydin’s testimony at an August hearing, however, he described Aral as telling him that he saw a connection between missionaries and the PKK. The goal of Christian missionary work in Turkey, Aral reportedly said, was “to destroy the motherland.”

Recent high-level political events in Turkey, however, show that the plausibility of his alleged promise for state protection to Gunaydin and the other four youths may not be unfounded.

In January police uncovered and started arresting members of Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy in recent murders. The indictment has accused 86 suspects, 70 of which are in custody.

A separate criminal investigation has linked the cabal to high-profile attacks, murders and plans to engineer domestic chaos and ultimately overthrow the government. Evidence in the Malatya case indicates that Aral acted as a bridge between the five murder suspects and Ergenekon.

In January Malatya police found Aral’s diary, which mentioned multiple people indicted in Ergenekon and contact information for Kemal Kerincsiz, an ultranationalist lawyer who had charged two Turkish Christians for “insulting Islam.” The court case of Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal has been underway for two years.

In his diary Aral mentioned the duty to “protect the state’s honor.” His frequent comments to media have also raised eyebrows, such as his recent statement that, “I can’t stand that patriots like Veli Kucuk are in prison.”

Kucuk is a retired major general arrested in the Ergenekon case. He has been indicted for threatening Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist who was assassinated in January 2007, and is believed to be a key player in the network, according to Turkish national daily Today’s Zaman.

When Judge Eray Gurtekin asked Aral why his diary mentioned these people, Aral claimed he “received information” and wrote their names down to think about them later. He claimed to be merely compiling information in order to write a book about Ergenekon.

The witness was more elusive when he was asked if he knew Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who leads the team of plaintiff lawyers.

Aral merely said he didn’t know Cengiz. But for the last few months Aral has talked to many journalists in the country’s major cities, trying to prove that Cengiz was the leader of a secret resistance group established by the government responsible for the murders of Hrant Dink, Father Andrea Santoro (a Catholic priest who was killed in 2006), and the Malatya murders.

Judge Gurtekin then asked Aral if he had worked as a police informant for either the police or gendarmerie. He answered, “I have many police and military officers among my friends. We drink tea and talk with each other.”


Dark Connections

Plaintiff attorneys have seen some progress in the Malatya trial, which has continued for nearly a year. But they believe it will take time to get to the root of the crime, which they say runs very deep.

“It has become very clear for everyone that there is this very dark, complex, sophisticated web of relations behind the scenes, but we can’t pick them out or prove them beyond reasonable doubt for the time being,” said Cengiz. “We are stuck. Everyone sees that some of the witnesses are not witnesses at all – they are either aiding and abetting or a member of the gang. Some people like Bulent Aral are there to create a cloak of confusion that you can’t get past.”

Aral was arrested last year while in possession of a Kalashnikov assault rifle, which he claims he had confiscated from a 10-year-old, and was arrested while en route to a police station to hand over the gun. A week before the three Christians were killed in 2007, Gunaydin visited Aral in prison.

Plaintiff attorneys said that as defendant Abuzer Yildirim and Aral were leaving the courtroom after the court’s adjournment, they noticed Aral tell Yildirim face-to-face, “Look around carefully. This may be the last time you see these things before you die.”

The plaintiff attorneys said that Aral may not have been threatening him with this statement, but instead warning him about other threats or possible dangers stemming from the case, according to Haberturk news Website.

Following the last testimony, five knives, two guns and blood-stained clothes of the suspects found at the crime scene were shown to the court.

The plaintiff attorneys requested the Ergenekon file from the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul on Aug. 12. They have not yet received the file, but hope to find a relationship between the Malatya and Ergenekon investigations and possibly combine them.

The next hearing is scheduled in Malatya for Nov. 21.  

Report from Compass Direct News