Pastor Bike encourages house church despite persecution

ChinaAid ( is reporting that this morning (Monday, September 20, 2010), during the trial of house church Christians Liu Yunhua and Gao Jianli, Pastor “Bike” (Zhang Mingxuan) and his wife, who had come to see the trial, were detained by the Public Security Bureau (PSB), reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

“The passionate evangelist, known for riding his bike across the country on missions of encouragement, has been detained, arrested, and interrogated countless times over the past 10 years in his efforts to strengthen house church Christians. He is the Chairman of the China House Church Alliance,” said the ChinaAid story.

“The court session for the trial of second instance in the Christian persecution case of Liu Yunhua and Gao Jianli of Xuchang City, Henan province began at 9 a.m. today Monday local time, at the Intermediate People’s Court of Xuchang City. Pastor Bike and his wife arrived at the court today to watch with the audience, but were detained by the local PSB of Xuchang City. At 11:30am, they were released.”

Other Christians from Yucheng, Hennan, who had come to see the trial, were also detained by the Yucheng Public Security Bureau on their way home. They are Liu Fulan, Hua Cuiying, Li Yuxia, Ma Keai, Liu Sen (the son of the defendant Liu Yunhua). There is as of yet no record of their release.

ChinaAid urges Xuchang local government to respect Pastor Zhang Mingxuan (“Bike”) and his wife’s rights as citizens, and we call on the Yucheng local government to release the house church members who are still detained.

“We ask Christians worldwide to join us in prayer for their protection and encouragement,” a spokesperson said.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law

Already suppressed Christians say bill is designed to control growth.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, July 21 (CDN) — Christians in this Himalayan nation who are still longing to openly practice their faith were disheartened this month when the government proposed the kind of “anti-conversion” law that other nations have used as a pretext for falsely accusing Christians of “coercion.”

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” – vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

“There was always a virtual anti-conversion law in place, but now it is on paper too,” said a senior pastor from Thimphu on condition of anonymity. “Seemingly it is aimed at controlling the growth of Christianity.”

Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, told Compass that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”

Asked if he was aware that similar “anti-conversion” laws in neighboring India had been misused to harass Christians through vague terms of “inducement,” he said he was not.

Authorities usually act on complaints by local residents against Christian workers, so frivolous complaints can lead to their arrest, said another pastor who requested anonymity.

Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, over 75 percent are Buddhist, mainly from the west and the east. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

There are around 6,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese, but there is neither a church building nor a registered Christian institution. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, with Hinduism dominant in the south, according to Bhutan’s official website, which adds, “Some residues of Bon, animism and shamanism still exist in some pockets of the country,” but makes no mention of Christianity.

Still, since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice.


‘Why More Religions?’

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

Buddhism is closely linked with political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in a gigantic monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the social life of a village revolves around its dzong (monastery).

Dorji said India’s multi-religious society had led to tensions and bloodshed.

“India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants [India and China].”

With leaders who have been proud that they have not allowed it to be colonized, Bhutan historically has been keenly concerned about its survival. Bhutan’s people see their distinct culture, rather than the military, as having protected the country’s sovereignty. And it is no coincidence that Dorji’s portfolio includes both internal security and preservation of culture.

The constitution, adopted in July 2008, also requires the state to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.

A government official who requested anonymity said that, as Tibet went to China and Sikkim became a state in India, “now which of the two countries will get Bhutan?”

This concern is prevalent among the Bhutanese, he added.

Sikkim, now a state in India’s northeast, was a Buddhist kingdom with indigenous Bhotia and Lepcha people groups as its subjects. But Hindus from Nepal migrated to Sikkim for work and gradually outnumbered the local Buddhists. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide if Sikkim, then India’s protectorate, should become an official state of the country. Since over 75 percent of the people in Sikkim were Nepalese – who knew that democracy would mean majority-rule – they voted for its incorporation
into India.

Bhutan and India’s other smaller neighbors saw it as brazen annexation. And it is believed that Sikkim’s “annexation” made Bhutan wary of the influence of India.

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which was discriminatory to the ethnic Nepalese, who protested. Their non-compliance, however, resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

“Bhutan did not want to become another Sikkim,” said a local resident, explaining why the government did not tolerate the protests.

Bhutan is also rigorous in implementing its laws related to the use of the national language, the national dress code and the uniform architectural standards throughout the country to strengthen its cultural integrity. Bhutanese men are required to wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, when they go to work or attend a public function. Women have to wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Non-compliance can lead to fine
and imprisonment.


Brighter Future

One hopeful pastor said he expects the government to officially acknowledge the existence of Christianity in Bhutan in the near future.

“Religious freedom will be good for both Christians and the government,” he said. “If Christians are not officially acknowledged, who will the government go to if it wants to implement an executive decision related to religious communities?”

Explaining the reason for his hope, he recalled an incident in the Punakha area in January, when a house under construction was demolished after rumors that it was used as a church.

“The house owner, a Christian, went to his majesty [King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] and told him he was not constructing a church but would have worship with other believers on Sundays,” the pastor said. “The king allowed him to build the house.”

He also said that a delegation of Christians met with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley in May 2009, who reassured them that there would be more freedom soon.

Christianity is gradually growing, but through word-of-mouth – testimonies of those who have received healing from sickness – and not public preaching, he said, adding that Christians needed to understand and be patient with the government, “which cannot and should not make changes or give freedom overnight.”



Christians’ Skulls, Bones Used for Buddhist Ritual

The ambiguity in Bhutan over the status of Christians has brought with it a new difficulty: A national daily recently reported that at least eight graves of Christians had been exhumed and the skulls and thigh bones extracted for a Buddhist ritual.

Although the report marked the first time the practice had made the news, Christian leaders said more than 100 graves have been dug up as the trade in human bones has been going on for more than five years.

A local resident of the Lamperi area, near Thimphu, identified as Namgay, told the Bhutan Observer that he found eight graves in a “secret forest graveyard” that had been exhumed by hunters of craniums and thigh bone.

“We saw skulls without craniums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he was quoted as saying in the daily on May 27.

A human skull garners between 5,000 ngultrum (US$105) and 10,000 ngultrum (US$211) in Bhutan, with men’s skulls considered more valuable. The skull of a man affected by leprosy is not considered ideal for purification. Rather, such skulls are considered best for rituals to subdue evil spirits.

In a visit to the graveyard, the Bhutan Observer found at least eight graves freshly dug up. “Hand gloves, khaddar [a coarse homespun cotton cloth], a currency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over,” it reported.

The daily said the graveyard apparently belonged to the Christian community in Thimphu and nearby areas.

“Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow,” the report noted.

A local pastor told Compass that since Christians did not have a burial ground, they buried their dead in forests.

“More than 100 bodies have been dug up, even though we have changed several locations for burial,” he said. “I wonder how the traders in human bones discover these locations. Where do we go now?”

Some local residents reportedly believe that a Christian grave brings bad luck.

Damcho Wangchu, a resident of Thinleygang area, told the daily that the area surrounding the graveyard was holy. He attributed all misfortune in the area – including storms, the death of three students and of four others – to the Christian cemetery.

“We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog [cluster of villages] before,” he said.

The daily explained that the tradition of use of human skulls and thigh bones in Buddhist rituals was as old as Tantric Buddhism itself. “Thoepai Dagpa is a generic name for the text that illustrates the use and study of quality of skulls,” it reported.

Tantric Buddhism, widespread in Bhutan, involves rituals as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.

An editorial in the same newspaper noted, “Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Egyptian security arrests Christian for praying at home

On October 24, 2009 Egyptian State Security recently arrested a Christian Copt in the village of Deir Samalout, Samalout, Minia province, for praying “without a license,” reports Jeremy Reynalds, correspondent for ASSIST News Service.

The incident occurred on Oct. 24 2009.

According to a story by Mary Abdelmassih of the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), he was held in prison for two days before being released on “compassionate grounds.”

AINA reported that Maurice Salama Sharkawy, 37, had invited Pastor Elia Shafik, to conduct the sacrament of the “Anointing of the Sick” for his sick father, who had suffered a stroke. State Security broke into his house while the prayers were ongoing, handcuffed Sharkawy, put him in a police car and took him to a police station for interrogation.

According to AINA, authorities accused Sharkawy of carrying out “religious rites without a license,” and “causing sectarian sedation” by calling a priest into the village. A number of his cousins living in the same house and attending the prayer service, were also detained with him.

State Security has placed Sharkawy under observation.

AINA said that in an audio interview with Wagih Yacoub of Middle East Christian Association (MECA), Sharkawy said that State Security told him he should have first gone to them to obtain permission before carrying out any religious rites. He was also told by Security that there are twelve Muslim houses in the village and that would create sectarian clashes.

The son of the village mayor filed a complaint that Sharkawy had converted his home into a place of worship without obtaining a government license to host religious ceremonies.

AINA said the police record of the investigation states the defendant called for the prayer meeting, which angered a number of Muslim neighbors, who complained to the mayor of the village. The village of Deir Samalut has no church, and the nearest one is in the village of el Tayeba, over five miles away.

AINA reported that Mohammed Khalaf Allah, mayor of the village Deir Samalout, told al-Sherouk newspaper that Sharkawy used to invite Copts in his home, and that he asked him more than once to go to church (in the next village). The mayor said he asked Sharkawy to “pray there, but he claimed that he could not go to church and that the priest visits him at home for ordinary matters, which is common among Christians.”

The mayor also said, “The villagers confirmed to me more than once that the sound of prayer comes out of Maurice’s house, and that he refuses to go to church and decides to pray in his own home together with a number of the village Copts.”

Commenting on the latest incident, Rev. Moses Raphael of the Samalout Coptic Orthodox Diocese said the arrest of the village Copts for praying at home is not uncommon.

AINA reported he said, “Such a matter comes as no surprise; it has become common in Minya to prevent Christians from praying.”

Given the recent security clampdown on Christians praying in places outside their licensed churches, AINA reported Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic Watani newspaper, blames the State as the main party standing in the way of building places of worship which would put an end to human rights violations.

Sidhom said, “Authorities turn a blind eye to Constitutional provisions of equality and freedom of belief. They terrorize worshipers who dare conduct services outside a licensed church, treating them as law violators, despite the fact that the root problem lies in the authorities’ reluctance to permit the erection of new churches or restore existing ones.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 


Prosecutors suspect he’s protecting ‘masterminds’ of slaying of three Christians in Malatya.

ISTANBUL, August 25 (Compass Direct News) – Turkish murder suspect Emre Gunaydin admitted in court last week that he had again committed perjury in the trial over the savage murders of three Christians in southeast Turkey.

Gunaydin, 21, faced off in Malatya’s Third Criminal Court on Friday (Aug. 21) with Varol Bulent Aral, whom he had named as one of the instigators of the attack at Zirve Publishing Co.’s Malatya office in a previous disposition before state prosecutors. Gunaydin, the alleged ringleader of the murderers, told the court that he had lied in a previous disposition before state prosecutors by implicating Aral.

“I named Varol Bulent Aral to reduce the sentence,” Gunaydin said under questioning.

His admission came after Aral testified at length, painting an elaborate scenario of himself as a key player in the “Ergenekon” conspiracy – said to include top level political and security officials, among others – suspected of orchestrating the 2007 Malatya attack with Gunaydin and four other defendants.

“Varol Bulent Aral has no connection with these events,” Gunaydin insisted. “He is explaining things that he has imagined. There was not any threat against me, nor any instigator.”

Gunaydin initially failed to appear at Friday’s hearing where Aral was expected to testify, sending a note to the court that he was feeling unwell. But the judge abruptly announced a short court recess and ordered Gunaydin brought immediately from prison to the courtroom.

At a hearing three months ago, Gunaydin retracted similar allegations he had made against Huseyin Yelki, a former volunteer at the Christian publishing house where Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske were bound hand and foot, tortured and then slain with knives.

Jailed for three months on the basis of Gunaydin’s allegations, Yelki was finally brought to testify at the May 22 hearing.

“Huseyin Yelki is not guilty. He’s in prison for nothing,” Gunaydin told the court after Yelki testified. When questioned why he previously had implicated Yelki, Gunaydin said, “I did it to lessen my punishment. That’s why I said he was a missionary.”

Despite glaring discrepancies in his testimony, Yelki was released for lack of evidence. Aral was also ordered released for insufficient evidence, although he remains jailed in the Adiyaman Prison on unrelated criminal charges.

Plaintiff lawyers have expressed skepticism about Gunaydin’s two retractions, questioning whether he has been pressured to change his testimony in order to shield the actual instigators of the plot. They also remain unconvinced that Aral and Yelki were not collaborators in the attack.

Prosecution Failures

“An investigation does not just consist of claims, it must consist of proofs,” plaintiff lawyer Ali Koc told journalists on the courthouse steps after last week’s hearing. “One of the underlying missing elements of the Zirve Publishing trial in Malatya stems from the failure to pursue the investigation with sufficient objectivity, depth and careful attention.”

The only reason Aral and Yelki were charged in the case, the attorney noted, was because one of the defendants claimed they were accomplices. Koc stressed it was “the duty of the state and the judiciary to uncover those responsible for this event – the instigators, and the climate in which they emerged.”

He also declared that Aral should be investigated for his relations with intelligence officials, which he hoped would expose new evidence.

“If the Malatya case is not joined with the Ergenekon trial, then we’re probably looking at a verdict against the killers within the next three to five court hearings,” plaintiff lawyer Erdal Dogan said. “But I have hope – I hope for merging it with the Ergenekon case, in order to uncover the perpetrators behind the scenes.”

After two failed summons, Burcu Polat also appeared to testify at the Aug. 21 hearing. Now 18, Polat was Gunaydin’s girlfriend at the time of the murders. She stated that she had used two different cell phones in the weeks previous to the murders. Both telephones were registered in the name of her father, Ruhi Polat, a provincial council member of the Nationalist Movement Party previously called to testify at the trial.

The court summoned intelligence officer Murat Gokturk from the Malatya gendarmerie headquarters to appear at the next hearing, set for Oct. 16. Yelki had contacted Gokturk frequently by telephone in the weeks preceding the murders.

Detailed Informant Letter

Two months ago, an informant in the military intelligence division of the Malatya gendarmerie headquarters sent an extremely detailed report to state prosecutors regarding what Turkish media have dubbed the “Malatya massacre.”

The two-page letter fingered former Col. Mehmet Ulger, gendarmerie commander of Malatya province at the time of the murders, as a key instigator within the murder plot.

With precise, documented details, the report outlined Ulger’s targeting of the Malatya Christians and their activities during the weeks surrounding the attack, including a secret briefing for selected officials, unregistered meetings and the tapping of gendarmerie personnel named for specific assignments at various stages.

At the actual day and hour of the killings, the report said, Ulger received a telephone call from his commander while he was in a furniture shop in the city center. Ulger immediately promised to go to the scene, taking two sergeant majors and an official car, and arriving just as the police teams pulled up.

“The event had just happened, and the police teams had not yet gone to the scene, and Mehmet Ulger’s superiors informed him about it,” the report noted.

The letter goes on to describe frequent visits Inonu University professor Ruhi Abat made to Ulger’s office, where the colonel had specifically ordered his subordinates to never record Abat’s visits in the official record book.

Although Ulger and Abat testified on April 13 that they had sponsored a seminar regarding missionary activities for gendarmerie personnel, the informant declared it could be easily proved that such a seminar had never been held.

The informant claimed that 40,000 Turkish lira (US$30,800 at the time) was paid out during 2007 by Malatya’s gendarmerie intelligence staff “solely to direct close surveillance on missionary activities.” Instead of using the funds to help “break apart illegal organizations or recover a lot of drugs,” he said, a large portion of the money was handed over to Abat, he said.

The informant’s letter was sent simultaneously to Malatya Prosecutor Seref Gurkan and State Prosecutor Zekeriya Oz, who heads the Ergenekon investigation in Istanbul.

The anonymous informant claimed he had much more information that he could not pass along safely without revealing his own identity.

“Because I regret that I was involved myself in some of this, I am sending this letter to both prosecutors,” he wrote. “I hope that I am being helpful in solving this dark event.” He enclosed a CD of Ulger’s 2007 briefing as well as a list of the people whose telephones were being tapped.

It is not known how seriously the latest informant’s letter is being taken by the Malatya prosecutors.

“But we are seeing the continuation of a long chain of information coming out,” plaintiff lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz commented. “We have at least achieved something in the eyes of the Turkish public, because everyone is now convinced that it was not just these five young men who planned this; there were much larger and more serious forces behind the scenes.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Verdict suggests Algerian government could be softening crackdown on Christians.

ISTANBUL, October 29 (Compass Direct News) – A court in northwestern Algeria today acquitted three Christians charged with blaspheming Islam and threatening a member of their congregation who re-converted to Islam.

The acquittal was announced in a court at Ain El-Turck, 15 kilometers (nine miles) west of the coastal city of Oran. The defendants believe the judge’s decision to acquit was due to the spurious evidence used against them.

The acquittal also comes as part of a larger trend of the Algerian government bowing to negative international media attention and government condemnations of such cases, they said.

Defendant Youssef Ourahmane said that as a result, a recent government crackdown against evangelical Christians has eased off in recent months.

“We had noticed the last four or five months the government is trying to back down a little bit,” Ourahmane said. “I think the pressure on them has been strong, such as condemnations from the U.S. and foreign ministries from France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Spain. This pressure from outside has embarrassed the Algerian government very much.”

Algerian courts have handed several suspended sentences to local evangelicals in the last year under a recent presidential decree that prohibits proselytizing Muslims. No Christian, however, has served prison time on religious charges.

Ourahmane, Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, and a third man were charged in February with “blaspheming the name of the Prophet [Muhammad] and Islam” and threatening the life of a man who claimed to have converted to Christianity but who “returned” to Islam when his fundamentalist ties were exposed.

The first hearing of the three men took place on Oct. 21 in Ain El-Turck. A lawyer appointed by the Ministry of Religion also joined the hearing and surprised the defendants by supporting their plight.

The lawyer affirmed the rights of religious minorities such as Christians in Algeria. The Christians present said she would like the case to be closed.

A prosecutor in the case had sought three years of prison for the three men and a fine of 50,000 dinars (653 euros) for each.

Taking the stand last week, the three men were asked whether they had blasphemed Muhammad and threatened Shamouma Al-Aid, the convert and plaintiff. Al-Aid had professed Christianity from July 2004 through July 2006, when he attended a church near Oran. It was there that he met the Christians, against whom he later filed the blasphemy complaint.

Essaghir, an evangelist and church elder for a small community of Muslim converts to Christianity in Tiaret, has been one of the most targeted Christians in Algeria.

In the last year he has received three sentences, one for blasphemy and two for evangelism. Police stopped Essaghir and another man in June 2007 while transporting Christian literature. As a result they were convicted in absentia in November 2007 and given a two-year sentence and 5,000-euro fines. The Protestants requested a retrial, and the charges were dropped at a hearing in June.

Asked if he could explain why he and other Christians were under fire by Islamists, he told Compass that Muslims felt menaced by the existence of Christianity and its rise in Algeria.

“We are attacked because Muslims feel threatened by us,” said Essaghir. “There are many people who are coming to Christ.”

When the three accused Christians met Al-Aid, he claimed that his family was persecuting him, so they took him in to their church community. But in 2006 the Christians learned that Al-Aid in fact had links with Islamic fundamentalists.

After excommunicating Al-Aid, in October 2007 the three Christians were summoned by police when Al-Aid registered his complaint that they had insulted Muhammad and Islam and threatened his life.

“But the accusations against us are unfounded,” Essaghir told Compass last week by phone. “There is no proof, but we are being condemned because there is no justice.”

Ourahmane said that Al-Aid had shown the police text messages to support his claims, but that police said the number had not been registered with telecommunications services.

With their fresh acquittal, the three Christians could open a case against Al-Aid for bringing a case against them based on spurious evidence, according to Algerian law.

Instead, they want to offer their forgiveness, Ourahmane said.

“We have decided to forgive him and will communicate we are all ready to help him if he needs any help,” he said. “We are in touch with him through one of our team members, and if he is thirsty or hungry we are more than happy to help.”


Pressure on Algeria’s Church

The three acquitted men are just a few of the Algerian Christians who have come under legal heat in a wave of trials this year against the country’s tiny evangelical church.

Habiba Kouider, facing a three-year sentence after police stopped her while she was carrying several Christian books, has been kicked out of her family’s home. Kouider’s brothers learned about her conversion to Christianity after her case sparked national and international media attention.

In most cases the Christians have been charged under a presidential decree from February 2006 that restricts religious worship to government-approved buildings. The decree, known as Ordinance 06-03, also outlaws any attempt to convert Muslims to another faith.

The international community has been vocal about the Algerian government’s stance toward Christians. On June 6, some 30 U.S. congressmen sent a letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

They addressed human rights violations resulting from Ordinance 06-03, which has resulted in the closures of churches and criminal charges against Christians.

Algeria’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but loose terminology in its penal code – such as Article 144, which calls for up to five years of prison for “anyone who offends the Prophet and denigrates the tenets of Islam” – has allowed judges to give Islamic practice the force of law.

On Sept. 29 six men in Biskra, 420 kilometers (260 miles) south of Algiers, were sentenced to four years of prison for eating in public before sunset during the month of Ramadan, according to Algerian national daily Liberte. Muslims are required to abstain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset during this 30-day period.

An Oct. 6 editorial in Algerian daily El Watan lamented the decision as proof that religious rights were eroding in Algeria.

“The divine law itself does not provide for severe penalties, and even the Taliban regime is not as strict,” said editorial writer Reda Bekkat. “One can imagine a judge tomorrow questioning people [who were] walking on the streets at the hour of prayer because they are not at the mosque.”  

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


Crime scene video sobers courtroom; accused killers either grin or grow sick.

MALATYA, Turkey, August 22 (Compass Direct News) – The five young Turkish men accused of torturing and killing three Christians in Malatya last year may have been incited by members of a vast political conspiracy allegedly responsible for multiple murders in recent years.

The 10th hearing on the murder of three Christians at a publishing house in southeast Turkey 16 months ago took place yesterday (Aug. 21) at the Malatya Third Criminal Court. Plaintiff attorneys requested the case be integrated with an investigation into Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy in various murders.

In January police uncovered and started arresting members of Ergenekon. A criminal investigation has linked them to high-profile attacks, murders and plans to engineer domestic chaos and ultimately overthrow the government.

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske, were brutally tortured and killed on April 18, 2007 in the southeastern Turkish city of Malatya.

Evidence suggests Emre Gunaydin, the suspected ringleader of the murderers, was in contact with at least two people connected to Ergenekon: a retired brigadier general and a journalist. The latter, Varol Bulent Aral, told Gunaydin he saw a connection between missionaries and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) terrorist organization.

At yesterday’s hearing, presiding Judge Eray Gurtekin asked Gunaydin if he knew a former general and a political leader indicted in Ergenekon.

Gurtekin showed Gunaydin a note he had written last year while recovering in hospital from injuries he sustained after jumping out a third-story window while trying to escape police after the murder. His note said, “Don’t tell Levent.”

When the judge asked who this was, Gunaydin replied that he didn’t remember. Pressing further, Gurtekin asked him if he knew Levent Ersoz, a retired brigadier general indicted in the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy, or Levent Temiz, former head of the ultranationalist Ulku Ocaklari youth organization.

Gunaydin said he didn’t know the two men. Metin Dogan, a witness at the last hearing, said he and Gunaydin were involved in Ulku Ocaklari together. Gunaydin has denied knowing Dogan or having any involvement in the group.

Neither the widows of Aydin and Geske nor parents of Yuksel attended yesterday’s hearing. The martyred Christians left behind five children and Yuksel’s fiancée.

On the morning of the trial, Zaman national daily reported on further connections between the Malatya killings and Ergenekon. Gunaydin had been in contact with local journalist Aral, who had connections with Ergenekon and was called as a witness for the July 4 hearing.

Aral was arrested in another Turkish city while in possession of a Kalashnikov assault rifle. A week before the three Christians were killed in 2007, Gunaydin visited Aral in prison.

In January Malatya police found Aral’s diary, containing contact information for ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, who was indicted in the Ergenekon affair. Previously Kerincsiz had pressed charges against two Turkish Christians for “insulting Islam” and charged Armenian journalist Hrant Dink with insulting Turkishness. Dink was assassinated in January 2007.

Gunaydin said in a statement that Aral told him that there was a connection between the PKK and foreign missionaries. The goal of Christian missionary work in Turkey, Aral said, was to destroy the motherland.

“I asked him if someone shouldn’t stop this,” Gunaydin said. “He told me to get up and stop this. When I asked him how this will be done, he said, ‘We will provide state support.’”


Graphic Footage

Possible evidence of such state support for the murders was shown at the most recent hearing, when plaintiff lawyers showed police video footage of the crime scene taken hours after the murder on April 18.

The footage suggests someone tampered with evidence at the crime scene. According to the video, a handgun found at the crime scene was too large to fit into its gun box, indicating weapons had been swapped.

“This shows there is someone protecting these suspects,” said plaintiff attorney Murat Dincer. “If someone in the investigation changed the guns, then there is another force behind the scenes.”

Police could be overheard in the audio track arguing whether the guns were the same or not. Dincer requested this footage be replayed so the court could hear the police having the argument. The court has requested an expert witness to testify about the guns for the next hearing.

The court has not allowed release of any copies of this footage, and even attorneys were allowed to watch it only under supervision.

The hearing produced emotional moments for the victims’ acquaintances. Close-up shots of the victims showed their bodies mutilated and lying in pools of their own blood.

While some in the court teared up at the close-ups of the victims, suspects Gunaydin and Salih Gurler were seen grinning at times during the display of the footage.

Some of the five suspects looked away from the video during the gruesome scenes. The judge then ordered them to keep watching: “It’s because of you we are watching this. Look at it.”

Defendant Abuzer Yildirim turned around and told the judge he could not continue to watch because his stomach couldn’t handle it.


Absent Witnesses

Only one of eight witnesses summoned to testify attended yesterday’s hearing. Huseyin Yelki, 34, testified he was working part-time at Zirve’s Malatya office when Gunaydin and two other men visited there, about a month or six weeks before the murders, he recalled.

Gunaydin introduced himself, saying he wanted to meet Necati Aydin. But when Yelki telephoned Aydin and learned he would be coming to the office an hour later, the three men left. Yelki, who walks with a cane, said he never saw them again and could not remember their faces.

According to the murder suspects’ testimonies, Gunaydin had told them that it would be easy to get information from a man with a lame leg who worked at the Zirve office.

Despite previous court orders for police to track down and force three of the witnesses to appear, the court was informed that no current addresses had been located for any of the seven absent witnesses.


Ergenekon Connection

The court has requested the file on the Ergenekon investigation.

After the hearing, attorney Ozkan Yucel said the plaintiff team has requested the entire indictment file from the Ergenekon case in Istanbul on a DVD. The next hearing will be on Sept. 12.

There has been a wave of attacks and threats against Christians across Turkey in recent years, and documents suggest these events are related.

In the first Malatya hearing in November, plaintiff attorneys presented a surprise demand to broaden the prosecution from an isolated case of terrorism to the criminal code statutes against religious “genocide.”

In a January hearing, formal requests to remove 16 files of information about the religious activities of the three Christians and to charge the perpetrators with “religious genocide” were denied.

Confiscated Ergenekon files show the group apparently tracked even the smallest actions of Christians in Turkey. A Jan. 7, 2005 statement made cryptic mention of church members in Izmir, Mersin, and Trabzon: “Those who have recently accepted Christianity show increasing devotion to their own rules,” the file said, according to Radikal national daily on Aug. 14.

Members of those churches have been attacked or killed in following years. In February 2006 a youth shot and killed Father Andrea Santoro in the Santa Maria Church in Trabzon. The same year, a 19-year-old man stabbed Father Adriano Franchini in Izmir.

Although yesterday’s hearing avoided the theatrics of the previous hearing on July 4, when defense attorneys tried to link Malatya’s Christian missionaries with the PKK, there was one hot outburst when a defense attorney asked why there were so many foreigners living in Malatya. The plaintiff attorneys then rose to their feet in protest, declaring the question irrelevant to the case.

Plaintiff lawyer Ozkan Yucel spoke to the Turkish press outside the courthouse after the hearing. He said the plaintiff lawyers wanted the Ergenekon file to find a relationship between the Malatya and Ergenekon investigations and possibly combine them.

“I am of the opinion this will be combined with Ergenekon investigation,” he said. “We may request they be combined at the next hearing.”  

Report from Compass Direct News