Lawyer Calls Turkish Christians’ Trial a ‘Scandal’


Evidence still absent in case for ‘insulting Turkishness and Islam.’

SILIVRI, Turkey, October 16 (CDN) — After three prosecution witnesses testified yesterday that they didn’t even know two Christians on trial for “insulting Turkishness and Islam,” a defense lawyer called the trial a “scandal.”

Speaking after yesterday’s hearing in the drawn-out trial, defense attorney Haydar Polat said the case’s initial acceptance by a state prosecutor in northwestern Turkey was based only on a written accusation from the local gendarmerie headquarters unaccompanied by any documentation.

“It’s a scandal,” Polat said. “It was a plot, a planned one, but a very unsuccessful plot, as there is no evidence.”

Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal were arrested in October 2006; after a two-day investigation they were charged with allegedly slandering Turkishness and Islam while talking about their faith with three young men in Silivri, an hour’s drive west of Istanbul.

Even the three prosecution witnesses who appeared to testify at Thursday’s (Oct. 15) hearing failed to produce any evidence whatsoever against Tastan and Topal, who could be jailed for up to two years if convicted on three separate charges.

Yesterday’s three witnesses, all employed as office personnel for various court departments in Istanbul, testified that they had never met or heard of the two Christians on trial. The two court employees who had requested New Testaments testified that they had initiated the request themselves.

The first witness, a bailiff in a Petty Offenses Court in Istanbul for the past 28 years, declared he did not know the defendants or anyone else in the courtroom.

But he admitted that he had responded to a newspaper ad about 10 years ago to request a free New Testament. After telephoning the number to give his address, he said, the book arrived in the mail and is still in his home.

He also said he had never heard of the church mentioned in the indictment, although he had once gone to a wedding in a church in Istanbul’s Balikpazari district, where a large Armenian Orthodox church is located.

“This is the extent of what I know about this subject,” he concluded.

Fidgeting nervously, a second witness stated, “I am not at all acquainted with the defendants, nor do I know any of these participants. I was not a witness to any one of the matters in the indictment. I just go back and forth to my work at the Istanbul State Prosecutors’ office.”

The third person to testify reiterated that he also had no acquaintance with the defendants or anyone in the courtroom. But he stated under questioning that he had entered a website on the Internet some five or six years ago that offered a free New Testament.

“I don’t know or remember the website’s name or contents,” the witness said, “but after checking the box I was asked for some of my identity details, birth date, job, cell phone – I don’t remember exactly what.”

Noting that many shops and markets asked for the same kind of information, the witness said, “I don’t see any harm in that,” adding that he would not be an open person if he tried to hide all his personal details.

For the next hearing set for Jan. 28, 2010, the court has repeated its summons to three more prosecution witnesses who failed to appear yesterday: a woman employed in Istanbul’s security police headquarters and two armed forces personnel whose whereabouts had not yet been confirmed by the population bureau.

Case ‘Demands Acquittal’

Polat said after the hearing that even though the Justice Ministry gave permission in February for the case to continue under Turkey’s controversial Article 301, a loosely-defined law that criminalizes insulting the Turkish nation, “in my opinion the documents gathered in the file demand an acquittal.”

“There is no information, no document, no details, nothing,” Polat said. “There is just a video, showing the named people together, but what they are saying cannot be heard. It was shot in an open area, not a secret place, and there is no indication it was under any pressure.”

But prosecution lawyer Murat Inan told Compass, “Of course there is evidence. That’s why the Justice Ministry continued the case. This is a large ‘orgut’ [a term connoting an illegal and armed organization], and they need to be stopped from doing this propaganda here.”

At the close of the hearing, Inan told the court that there were missing issues concerning the judicial legality and activities of the “Bible research center” linked with the defendants that needed to be examined and exposed.

Turkish press were conspicuously absent at yesterday’s hearing, and except for one representative of the Turkish Protestant churches, there were no observers present.

The first seven hearings in the trial had been mobbed by dozens of TV and print journalists, focused on ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, who led a seven-member legal team for the prosecution.

But since the January 2008 jailing of Kerincsiz and Sevgi Erenerol, who had accompanied him to all the Silivri trials, Turkish media interest in the case has dwindled. The two are alleged co-conspirators in the massive Ergenekon cabal accused of planning to overthrow the Turkish government.

This week the European Commission’s new “Turkey 2009 Progress Report” spelled out concerns about the problems of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities.

“Missionaries are widely perceived as a threat to the integrity of the country and to the Muslim religion,” the Oct. 14 report stated. “Further efforts are needed to create an environment conducive to full respect of freedom of religion in particular.”

In specific reference to Tastan and Topal’s case, the report noted: “A court case against two missionaries in Silivri continued; it was also expanded after the Ministry of Justice allowed judicial proceedings under Article 301 of the Criminal Code.”

The Turkish constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all its citizens, and the nation’s legal codes specifically protect missionary activities.

“I trust our laws on this. But psychologically, our judges and prosecutors are not ready to implement this yet,” Polat said. “They look at Christian missionaries from their own viewpoint; they aren’t able to look at them in a balanced way.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

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TURKEY: CHRISTIAN HELD HOSTAGE AT KNIFE POINT IN ISTANBUL


Young Muslim threatens to slit throat of convert; police arrest him after short standoff.

ISTANBUL, August 6 (Compass Direct News) – In a bizarre show of Turkish nationalism, a young Muslim here took a Christian Turk at knife point, draped his head with the national flag and threatened to slit the throat of the “missionary dog” in broad daylight earlier this week.

Yasin Karasu, 24, held Ýsmail Aydýn, 35, hostage for less than half an hour on Monday (Aug. 3) in a busy district on the Asian side of Istanbul in front of passersby and police who promptly came to the scene.

“This is Turkey, and you can’t hand out gospels,” he yelled, according to the daily newspaper Haberturk. “These godless ones without the true book are doing missionary work.”

About 99 percent of Turkey’s population is at least nominally Muslim, and in the popular mindset the religion is strongly connected with being Turkish.

Karasu threatened to slit Aydin’s throat if anyone came near him and commanded those watching to give him a Turkish flag. Within minutes, Aydin told Compass, bystanders produced two flags. Karasu, who has known Aydin for a year, wrapped the larger of the two flags around Aydin’s head, making it difficult for him to breathe in heat that reached the low 30s Celsius (90s F) this week.

“Do you see this missionary dog?” he yelled at the crowd. “He is handing out gospels and he is breaking up the country!”

Karasu placed the smaller flag in Aydin’s hand and commanded him to wave it.

“Both flags came at the same time,” Aydin told Compass. “The big one he put very tightly over my head, and in the heat I couldn’t breathe.”

The whole time Karasu held a large knife to Aydin’s throat.

“You missionary dogs, do you see this flag?” he said, commanding Aydin to wave the flag. “This is a holy flag washed in the blood of our fathers.”

Aydin said he told Karasu, “Yasin, in any case this flag is mine as well! I’m a Turk too, but I’m a Christian.”

Karasu insisted that Aydin was not a Turk because he had betrayed the Turkish flag and country by his evangelism, according to Aydin.

Aydin said he told Karasu, “No, Yasin, I’m a Turk and I’m waving this flag with love. This is my flag. I’m a Turk.” He said Karasu replied, “No, you can’t be – you are breaking up the country, and I won’t allow it.”

Police managed to convince Karasu to put down the knife and release Aydin, telling him that if he killed the convert Turkey would be ridiculed around the world, and that as a last resort they were authorized to shoot to kill him.

“If you love this country, leave the man,” they told him.

A member of the Turkish Protestant Alliance’s legal team said Karasu was evidently trying to get attention.

“He was the type of person who would commit a crime,” said Umut Sahin. “He had just gotten out of the army, he probably didn’t have a job … Anyway he achieved his goal of putting on a show.”

Sahin added that Karasu had previously gotten into trouble for selling pirated CDs.

Religious Conversations

Aydin, who escaped with a slight cut on his throat, said that he never would have believed that Karasu would do such a thing.

The two men have known each other for about a year. While in the army, Karasu showed interest in learning more about Christianity and would call Aydin, a convert from Islam, to ask questions and talk, saying he was interested in other religions.

“He would call me often, because while in the army he was really depressed and he would often call me to tell me,” said Aydin. “He wanted relief and to talk to someone, but at the same time he was researching about religions.”

After his release from compulsory army duty, Karasu called Aydin and the two planned to meet at a Protestant church in the district of Kadikoy. Karasu came with a friend identified as Baris, who preferred to stay outside while the two of them had tea alone in the church basement.

Aydin said they spoke for nearly 20 minutes about Karasu’s life in his hometown of Erzurum and his financial and family difficulties, as well as some spiritual matters, but since his friend was outside they made it short. Karasu was smiling, in good spirits and not at all the way Aydin remembered him from their meeting nearly a year earlier when he was depressed, he said.

“He looked so healthy, and he was smiling, he was dressed well, he was talking comfortably, he looked so cheerful,” recalled Aydin with disbelief. “He was not at all depressed! I was so surprised!”

Karasu thanked Aydin for the conversation, and the two got up from the table to go up the stairs. Aydin led the way, walking ahead of Karasu about a meter. Just as Aydin reached the stairway, he felt an arm grab him around the neck.

“At the first step he violently grabbed me, putting his arm around my neck, and gripped me tightly,” recalled Aydin. “I was surprised and thought someone had come up from behind me to tease me, but then I remembered it was just the two of us downstairs. ‘Yasin,’ I said, ‘Is that you? Are you playing a joke on me?’”

“What joke!” he said, pulling out a knife, according to Aydin. “You’re a missionary dog, and I’ve come to cut your throat.”

Karasu told Aydin that he planned to make an example of him in the eyes of the nation by killing him in public. Two members of the church tried and failed to stop Karasu. The two church members and Karasu’s friend followed them to a busy street down the road.

“He took me down to the busy street by the sea, threatening to kill me,” Aydin said. “The funny thing about it is that I had the impression that we were playing a part in a film. Not a single person on the way down tried to stop him or told him to stop. They just all looked on with consternation.”

Within one or two minutes, he said, police and a television crew arrived.

“Within a minute, both police and cameras showed up – how quick was that?” he said. “I was surprised.”

Suspicion of ‘Terrorism’

Although Aydin said he believes the act was an isolated incident, other Christian Turks as well as police suspect it may have been an act of propaganda to frighten Turkey’s small Protestant community, most of whom are converts from Islam.

“I don’t think it was planned,” said Aydin, “but it is possible that it was.”

The police section on terrorism combat is researching the possibility that the attack was planned by a wider group. Aydin has decided not to press charges, telling Turkish media that he forgave Karasu.

“I think it was an isolated case, but I have to see the police report,” said Sahin of the Turkish Protestant Alliance. “If this was a provocation he would have killed him. He just wanted to show off … with the Turkish flag.” He added with a chuckle, “As if we don’t like waving it.”

According to Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution, people of all faiths have the right to spread information about their faith.

Aydin, who was convinced he was going to lose his life, said he feels the experience instilled new life into him.

“On Aug. 3 I died and was reborn,” said Aydin. “That was my date of death and birth. I was sure I was going to die. It’s like a new opportunity, a new life. I really think the Lord gave me a second chance, because if you think of it, after other events, like Hrant Dink or the Malatya killings, those brothers weren’t so fortunate, right?”

Police found two knives on Karasu’s person, along with two cell phones and the two flags he got from his audience. He is still in police custody with his friend.

In February 2006 an Italian Catholic priest was killed in the Black Sea coastal town of Trabzon, and Armenian Christian editor Hrant Dink was shot in front of the weekly Agos three months before three Christians – two Turks and a German – were killed in Malatya in April 2007.

Last month a German businessman was also murdered for being a Christian on a busy Istanbul street (see  “Christian Murdered on Busy Street in Istanbul,” July 28).

All murders were committed by Turkish men in their 20s.

Report from Compass Direct News 

TURKEY: ALLEGED ‘MIDDLEMAN’ IN MALATYA MURDERS A NO-SHOW


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

CHINA: AUTHORITIES REFUSE TO RENEW LICENSES FOR HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYERS


Key attorney for Uyghur Christian among those effectively disbarred.

DUBLIN, June 11 (Compass Direct News) – Li Dunyong, one of several lawyers involved in the defense of Uyghur house church Christian Alimjan Yimit (Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese) was effectively disbarred at the end of May when Chinese authorities turned down an annual application to renew his law license.

Zhang Kai, another Beijing lawyer who had defended Alimjan, suffered the same fate.

Authorities failed to renew licenses for at least 15 other lawyers who had defended civil rights cases, religious and ethnic minorities and political dissidents, according to watch group Human Rights in China (HRIC).

During a process of “Annual Inspection and Registration” for all lawyers and law firms, with a closing date of May 31 for renewal applications, authorities also denied three law firms the necessary approval to practice. Officials harassed and physically abused several of the affected lawyers in the months prior to the loss of their licenses.

The lawyers can technically appeal this decision or re-apply at a later date, but most see this as a clear warning to avoid handling sensitive cases.

“The process of building a country ruled by law has suffered a serious setback,” HRIC claimed in a statement on June 4.

The rejection of applications followed the Feb. 4 disappearance of Gao Zhisheng, a high-profile Christian human rights activist who once said that every human rights lawyer would eventually become a human rights case. Gao’s whereabouts remained unknown at press time. (See “Action Urged for Missing Rights Activist,” March 25.)

Lawyer Li had planned to visit Alimjan in northwest China early this month, but recent events have forced the legal team to reconsider its defense strategy.

Alimjan, a member of the troubled Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province, remains in arbitrary detention awaiting trial, 16 months after his arrest. Officials initially closed the foreign-owned business Alimjan worked for in September 2007 and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity.” He was then detained in January 2008 on charges of endangering state security and was formally arrested on Feb. 20, 2008 on charges of “inciting secession” and leaking state secrets.

Court officials returned Alimjan’s case to state prosecutors in May 2008, citing lack of evidence. Last May 21, government sources told Alimjan’s mother that the Public Security Bureau (PSB) in Kashgar planned to quietly sentence him to three years of re-education through labor, thereby circumventing the court system.

Under Chinese law the PSB, which originally filed the case against Alimjan, may authorize such sentences without approval from the court or other state agencies.

The case was returned to court for consideration last October, but at press time there was no indication of another date for a court hearing.

Li petitioned for and was granted permission for a rare meeting with his client on April 21 after witnesses saw police and a prison doctor escorting Alimjan to a hospital on March 30; Compass sources said Alimjan had been beaten in prison, although it was not clear who beat him or why. When Li questioned him, Alimjan indicated that he was not allowed to speak about his health.

The beating followed a previous meeting with his lawyer – only the second of such visits permitted during his detention – on March 24.

Human Rights Advocates Threatened

On April 13, China’s State Council released a new “National Human Rights Action Plan” that focused heavily on protecting the rights of prisoners and included a pledge to abolish torture and other forms of abuse within two years.

Issued at least partially in response to a United Nations review of China’s rights record in February, the plan also affirmed the right of prisoners to hire and meet with lawyers and to report abuses in writing to the appropriate authorities.

Contrary to such promises, however, the detention and physical abuse of lawyers has multiplied in recent months, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for HRW, maintains that control over the yearly renewal of licenses remains one of the main obstacles to the independence of China’s legal profession.

Authorities placed several human rights lawyers under house arrest or heavy surveillance in the first week of June as China marked the 20th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. According to HRIC, policemen seized one of the 15 temporarily disbarred lawyers, Tang Jitian, from his home early on the morning of June 4; they had already detained him for 10 hours the previous day.

“This is a display of meticulously planned suppression of lawyers who enforce and uphold the law and are dedicated to public interests,” Tang told HRIC.

One lawyer, Jiang Tianyong, said officers barred him from leaving his home on June 3 and told him, “Think of your wife and child.” Jiang is among those whose licenses were not renewed.

In late May, HRW reported that Beijing authorities had pressured several legal firms not to endorse the renewal applications of members who had defended civil rights cases.

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: CONVERT’S RELIGIOUS RIGHTS CASE THREATENS ISLAMISTS


Muslims said to fear that freedom to legally change religion would wreak societal havoc.

CAIRO, Egypt, May 12 (Compass Direct News) – In the dilapidated office here of three lawyers representing one of Egypt’s “most wanted” Christian converts, the mood was hopeful in spite of a barrage of death threats against them and their client.

At a court hearing on May 2, a judge agreed to a request by the convert from Islam to join the two cases he has opened to change his ID card to reflect his new faith. The court set June 13 as the date to rule on the case of Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary’s – who is in hiding from outraged Islamists – and lawyer Nabil Ghobreyal said he was hopeful that progress thus far will lead to a favorable ruling.

At the same time, El-Gohary’s lawyers termed potentially “catastrophic” for Egyptian human rights a report sent to the judge by the State Council, a consultative body of Egypt’s Administrative Court. Expressing outrage at El-Gohary’s “audacity” to request a change in the religious designation on his ID, the report claims the case is a threat to societal order and violates sharia (Islamic law).

“This [report] is bombarding freedom of religion in Egypt,” said lawyer Said Faiz. “They are insisting that the path to Islam is a one-way street. The entire report is based on sharia.”

The report is counterproductive for Egypt’s aspirations for improved human rights, they said. In the eyes of the international community it is self-condemned, the lawyers said, because it is not based on Egypt’s civil law, nor does it uphold the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights that Egypt has signed.

The report stated that those who leave Islam will be subject to death, described El-Gohary as an “apostate” and called all Christians “infidels.”

“During the hearing, they [Islamic lawyers] were saying that Christians are infidels and that Christ was a Muslim, so we said, ‘OK, bring us the papers that show Jesus embraced Islam,’” Faiz said, to a round of laughter from his colleagues.

Ghobreyal, adding that the report says El-Gohary’s case threatens public order, noted wryly, “In Egypt we have freedom of religion, but these freedoms can’t go against Islam.”

The trio of young lawyers working on El-Gohary’s case, who formed an organization called Nuri Shams (Sunlight) to support Christian converts’ rights, said they have received innumerable threats over the phone and on the Internet, and sometimes even from their colleagues.

Churches Challenged

To date no Christian convert in Egypt has obtained a baptismal certificate, which amounts to official proof of conversion.

Churches fear that issuing such certificates would create a severe backlash. As a result, converts cannot apply for a change of religion on their ID, but El-Gohary was able to travel abroad to get a baptismal certificate from a well-established church. In April a Coptic Cairo-based priest recognized this certificate and issued him a letter of acceptance, or “conversion certificate,” welcoming him to the Coptic Orthodox community.

El-Gohary’s baptismal certificate caused a fury among the nation’s Islamic lobby, as it led to the first official church recognition of a convert. A number of fatwas (religious edicts) have since been issued against El-Gohary and Father Matthias Nasr Manqarious, the priest who helped him.

“The converts have no chance to travel, to leave, to get asylum, so we have to help them to get documents for their new religion,” Fr. Manqarious told Compass by telephone. “So I decided to help Maher El-Gohary and others like him. They can’t live as Christians in broad daylight.”

For several months El-Gohary has been in hiding, relying on others to meet his basic needs. When Compass spoke with him by phone earlier this month, he said he lives in fear for his life and worries about his 14-year-old daughter’s safety.

“I’m hiding. Someone brings me my food and water. I haven’t gone out in a week,” said El-Gohary. “Many Muslims and sheikhs … say if anyone sees Maher Gohary, he must kill him. My life is very difficult.”

His original case, filed in August of last year, included an attempt to change the religious affiliation on his teenage daughter’s ID, but he later dropped it after further legal consultation. El-Gohary said that when radical Muslims recognize his daughter on the streets, they warn her that they will kill her father when they find him.

“She’s afraid for me,” he said.

His church acceptance letter has re-kindled discussion of a bill proposed by parliamentary members affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a hard-line Islamist opposition movement, which would make apostasy punishable by death, said El-Gohary’s lawyers. Human rights experts, however, say that such a bill does not stand a chance in the Egyptian Parliament and is primarily a smokescreen to induce fear in Egypt’s Christian converts from Islam.

Some Hope from Baha’is

Sources said the fact that the judge asked for a baptismal certificate and filed the letter of acceptance in the case represents progress in the ongoing struggle of Egyptian converts, who are not recognized in their own country.

Now that El-Gohary’s lawyers have produced the acceptance letter, the judge in the case finds himself in a bind, said Hassan Ismail, general secretary of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations.

“The judge is in a paradox with the document he asked for,” Ismail said. “It is difficult to accept it, and yet it is difficult having this document among those of the case.”

Ismail, who has worked for years defending the rights of both Baha’is and converts, said it is hard to predict what the judge will decide in June. Even with all the required documents and “proof” of El-Gohary’s conversion, he said, the judge may still deny his right to change religions.

“For us human rights activists, these decisions are political, not legal,” he said. “These sorts of documents put the government into a corner, and we are working hard to get them in order to push the government to make different decisions.”

At the age of 16 all Egyptians are required to obtain an ID that states their religion as Muslim, Christian or Jewish. These cards are necessary for virtually every aspect of life, from banking, to education and medical treatment.

Baha’is, who do not fall under the rubric of any of Islam’s “heavenly religions,” were forced to lie about their religion or not obtain cards until March, when in a historical decision Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld a lower court’s 2008 ruling that all Egyptians have a right to obtain official documents, such as ID cards and birth certificates, without stating their religion.

The gains of Baha’is have been a gauge of sorts for the Christian convert community, even though in reality they are not granted the freedom to change their stated religion or leave it blank on their cards and the official registry.

“I’m very optimistic about the cases of minorities and converts in Egypt,” said Ismail. “I believe that the case of Baha’is was an indicator for converts … If we were able to push their case, then we can defend the rights of converts.”

The human rights activist said that although discrimination against converts who are seen as apostates from Islam is greater than that against those raised in other religions, ultimately converts will be able to gain legal ground. El-Gohary’s case, he said, will play an important role.

“After years of fighting, the Baha’is have rights,” he said. “I think converts will succeed even if it takes years. Many are expecting to see Maher’s case [succeed], because it’s well documented.”

Attorney Ghobreyal said that El-Gohary’s case is on solid legal footing based on Article 46 of the Egyptian Civil Code, which grants religious freedom to the country’s citizens.

In his mind it is irrational that the government gave rights to the Baha’is, who fall outside of the three heavenly religions, while not granting the same rights to Christian converts. His only explanation is that a governmental green light to people to leave Islam could wreak havoc.

Not only is there fear of the Muslim front reacting violently to such a decision, but “they’re afraid that if they allow it, then all Muslims will become Christians,” said Ghobreyal. “They know there are many converts, and they will all officially become Christians.”

The lawyer said there are rumors circulating that there are a few million converts eagerly awaiting the results of El-Gohary’s case. Egypt’s last census in 2006 did not factor in religion, so figures of the Coptic population are based on estimates. These range from 6 to 15 percent of the country’s 80-million population. It is not possible to estimate the number of converts, most of whom live in secrecy.

“Ten years ago, you never heard about a convert, but now you hear that someone is going to the court to ask to become a Christian,” said Ghobreyal.

Hegazy’s Hope

The first convert to file for a change on his ID card, Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, said he was pleased with the progress of El-Gohary’s case and hoped that more converts would take the risk of joining their cause.

“I think that every case added to the convert case will be a help,” said Hegazy.

An outspoken critic of the refusal of Egypt’s established churches to openly baptize converts, Hegazy said that in El-Gohary’s case publicity and criticism pushed the church to take a step in the right direction in producing the conversion certificate.

“But this is not a big step, and there are many more that need to be taken and have not been,” he said. “Just to be clear, the [Egyptian] church has not given a baptism certificate, it has given an acceptance letter, and the church has declared they are not going to give a baptism paper … but we can’t deny that the step that the priest took to give the certificate was audacious.”

Hegazy, who lost his case in January 2008 and is waiting for an appeal date, was never able to get a baptism certificate, nor can he travel since he does not have a passport. If he returns to his hometown to apply for one, he risks losing his life.

He said he still hopes any of Egypt’s churches will help him by baptizing him and giving him a certificate in time for his appeal or for a new case he plans to open soon. Hegazy said that although his case is not as public as it used to be, he still faces danger when he leaves his house.

Although he is also in hiding and fears for his life, El-Gohary said he hopes his case opens the way for other converts to experience freedom.

“I hope this for all of those who want to live in the light and the sun; there are many families,” he said of Egypt’s converts. “I want to live in peace as a Christian. I hope my country gives me the freedom to worship my God and gives me my human rights.”

Egypt is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body made up of 47 states responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. On April 18, 2007, in its written statement applying for a seat to the Human Rights Council, the representative of Egypt to the U.N. stated that if elected it would emphasize promoting cultural and religious tolerance, among other human rights.

Report from Compass Direct News

CHINA: CHRISTIANS WARY AS RECESSION, UNREST HIT


Beleaguered government officials could view church as threat – or a force for stability.

BEIJING, February 25 (Compass Direct News) – With China’s central government last December issuing a number of secret documents calling on provincial officials to strive to prevent massive unrest in a rapidly collapsing economy, observers are watching for signs of whether authorities will view Christian groups as a threat or a stabilizing influence.

While the Sichuan earthquake last May proved that Christians were willing and able to assist in times of national crisis, raids on house church groups have continued in recent weeks.

The secret reports have come in quick succession. A central government body, the Committee for Social Stability (CSS), issued an internal report on Jan. 2 listing a total of 127,467 serious protests or other incidents across China in 2008, many involving attacks on government buildings or clashes with police and militia.

“Recently every kind of contradiction in society has reached the level of white heat,” the CSS warned in an earlier document issued on Dec. 16.

The document said some officials had “ignored the welfare of the masses … piling up pressure until the situation exploded,” and concluded that, “The relevant Party and State organs must … give daily priority to the task of getting rid of all the maladies which produce social instability and the present crisis.”

On Dec. 10, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the National People’s Congress issued an internal document calling on senior provincial officials to make every effort to alleviate social and political problems exacerbated by the current recession.

On Dec. 12, the Ministry of Public Security authorized provincial officials to tighten control of all communications in the sensitive period prior to Chinese New Year, which this year fell on Jan. 25. Fearing turmoil as millions of newly-unemployed factory workers headed home for New Year celebrations, the government cancelled all leave for Public Security Bureau (PSB) officers, placed them on high alert and mobilized an additional 150,000 police and armed militia for the holiday period.

On Dec. 15, the public security ministry issued a further document calling for tightened security at government ministries, military bases, armament stores, state borders, airports and railway stations.

In its Dec. 16 report, the CSS warned that provincial authorities must try to resolve grievances by non-violent means before protestors begin attacking factories and government offices or stealing, looting and burning property.

The scale of demonstrations and riots has already reached frightening proportions. In the Jan. 2 internal assessment leaked in Hong Kong, the CSS said the 127,467 serious incidents across China last year involved participation of around 1 percent of the population. Of these cases, 476 consisted of attacks on government and Party buildings, while 615 involved violent clashes with police and militia, leaving 1,120 police and Party officials and 724 civilians killed or injured.

 

Church as Subversive

Concerned by the growth of unregistered house church groups in an uncertain political and social climate, the Chinese government has ramped up efforts both to identify Christians and to portray Christianity as a subversive foreign force.

Local governments in China last year reported on continued measures to prevent “illegal” religious gatherings and curb other criminalized religious activities, according to reports from the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) on Dec. 20 and Feb. 2. (See “Tortured Christian Lawyer Arrested as Officials Deny Abuses,” Feb. 11.)

In recent months authorities have quietly gathered data on church growth using surveys at universities and workplaces, and called meetings at various institutions in the capital to discuss the supposed dangers of foreign religious influence. (See “Officials Grapple with Spread of Christianity,” Feb. 4.)

Raids on unregistered church groups have continued in recent weeks, with police perhaps prompted to ensure tighter controls on church activity. On Feb. 11, police arrested two South Korean pastors and more than 60 Chinese house church leaders from four provinces who had gathered for a seminar in Wolong district, Nanyang city, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported. The police also confiscated personal money, cell phones and books, and forced each person to register and pay a fine before releasing some of the elderly leaders.

Authorities held six of the detained leaders for several days but by Sunday (Feb. 22) had released all of them, Compass sources confirmed.

In Shanghai, police and members of the State Administration of Religious Affairs on Feb. 10 ordered Pastor Cui Quan to cancel an annual meeting for house church leaders, and then ordered the owner of the hall used by Cui’s 1,200-member congregation to cease renting it to Cui within 30 days, according to CAA.

Senior staff at Beijing’s Dianli Hospital on Feb. 6 ordered elderly house church pastor Hua Zaichen to leave the premises despite being severely ill, CAA reported. Government officials had refused to allow Hua’s wife, Shuang Shuying, an early release from prison to visit her dying husband unless she agreed to inform on other Christians, according to Hua’s son. After refusing their offer, Shuang was finally able to visit Hua on her release date, Feb. 8; Hua died the following day.

Both Shuang and her husband have suffered years of persecution for their involvement in the house church movement.

On Feb. 4, police seized Christian lawyer and human rights defender Gao Zhisheng from his home in Shaanxi province, CAA reported. At press time his whereabouts were unknown.

While other incidents have gone unreported, house church leaders in northern China told Compass in January that despite tighter restrictions in the current economic and political climate, they were optimistic about the ability of the church to survive and flourish.

 

SIDEBAR

Disenchantment, Dissent Spread Across China

In December, China celebrated the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s “open door” economic reform policy, which had led to a high annual growth rate of some 10 percent. While Party leaders publicly congratulated themselves, an internal party document warned that 75 percent of the financial benefits had gone to only 10 percent of the population, mainly high and middle-ranking Party members and some entrepreneurs.

With the growth rate now seriously dented, relations between Party members and the general public were “about to explode,” the document warned.

The document also referred to an “ideological vacuum in Party and state,” a “moral vacuum in upholding regulations,” and a “vacuum in spiritual civilization,” in stark contrast to the moral and spiritual values held by religious groups.

According to the Research Institute of the State Council, urban unemployment among young people had already risen to 10.5 percent by last June. If foreign investors continued to withdraw funds, the institute warned, this figure could rise to 16 percent or higher, sparking more outrage against the government.

Tens of thousands of factories closed down in the first six months of 2008, well before the full impact of the global recession hit China. By November, 10 million migrant workers were unemployed; most recent estimates put the figure at 20 million, and officials admit this figure will reach at least 35 million by the end of 2009.

Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu, responsible for agricultural affairs, warned in a recent report that 30 percent of all villagers have set up peasant organizations to challenge local government officials and crime bosses. Some groups also have plans to launch armed insurgencies and their own peasant governments.

Several million university graduates will also face unemployment this year, potentially lending their voices and leadership skills to mass protest movements.

An increasing number of intellectuals have already signed Charter 08, a petition issued in December calling for multi-party elections, human rights, press freedom and the rule of law.

On Jan. 7, a prominent Chinese lawyer, Yan Yiming, filed an application with the Finance Ministry demanding that it open its 2008 and 2009 budget books to the public. On Jan. 13, more than 20 Chinese intellectuals signed an open letter calling for a boycott of state television news programs because of “systematic bias and brainwashing,” while a Beijing newspaper ran an article arguing that freedom of speech was written into the constitution, The Washington Post reported in late January.

In response, Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu warned China’s leaders via state media that, “The present situation of maintaining national security and social stability is grave.”

Many analysts agree that the Chinese Communist Party may be facing its greatest challenge to date.

Report from Compass Direct News

ERITREA: CHRISTIAN DEATHS MOUNT IN PRISONS


Three more believers die in military confinement centers in past four months.

LOS ANGELES, January 21 (Compass Direct News) – Three Christians incarcerated in military prisons for their faith have died in the past four months in Eritrea, including the death on Friday (Jan. 16) of a 42-year-old man in solitary confinement, according to a Christian support organization.

Sources told Open Doors that Mehari Gebreneguse Asgedom died at the Mitire Military Confinement center from torture and complications from diabetes. Asgedom was a member of the Church of the Living God in Mendefera.

His death followed the revelation this month of another death in the same prison. Mogos Hagos Kiflom, 37, was said to have died as a result of torture he endured for refusing to recant his faith, according to Open Doors, but the exact date of his death was unknown. A member of Rhema Church, Kiflom is survived by his wife, child and mother.

Incarcerated Christians from throughout Eritrea have been transferred to the Mitire prison in the country’s northeast. In 2002 the Eritrean regime outlawed religious activity except that of the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim religions.

In October Open Doors learned of the death of Teklesenbet Gebreab Kiflom, 36, who died while imprisoned for his faith at the Wi’a Military Confinement center. He was reported to have died after prison commanders refused to give him medical attention for malaria.

In June 2008, 37-year-old Azib Simon died from untreated malaria as well. Weakened by torture, sources told Compass, Simon contracted malaria only a week before she died.

Together with the deaths this month, the confirmed number of Christians who have died while imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea now totals eight.

 

Mass Arrests

At the same time, the government of President Isaias Afwerki has stepped up its campaign against churches it has outlawed, earning it a spot on the U.S. Department of State’s list of worst violators of religious freedom.

The government arrested 15 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in Keren on Jan. 11, and before Christmas at least 49 leaders of unregistered churches in Asmara were rounded up over two weeks, Open Doors reported. Last November, 34 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in Dekemhare were arrested.

Those arrested included members of the Church of the Living God, Medhaniel Alem Revival Group and the Philadelphia, Kale-Hiwot, Rhema, Full Gospel and Salvation by Christ churches, according to Open Doors. The church leaders’ names appeared on a government list of 180 people who were taken from their homes and work places.

In the November sweep, authorities arrested 65 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in the towns of Barentu and Dekemhare, including 17 women. In Keren and Mendefera, 25 members of the Full Gospel Church were arrested, and 20 Christians belonging to the Church of the Living God in Mendefera and Adi-Kuala were arrested.

Church leaders in Eritrea told Open Doors that by mid-December, a total of 2,891 Christians, including 101 women, had been incarcerated for their faith.

On June 8, 2008 Compass learned that eight Christians held at the Adi-Quala prison were taken to medical emergency facilities as a result of torture by military personnel at the camp. Eritrean officials have routinely denied religious oppression exists in the country, saying the government is only enforcing laws against unregistered churches.

The government has denied all efforts by independent Protestant churches to register, and people caught worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even in private homes, suffer arrest, torture and severe pressure to deny their faith. The Eritrean Orthodox Church and its flourishing renewal movement has also been subject to government raids.  

Report from Compass Direct News