European Court Rules Against Turkey’s Religion ID


Designation on identification cards used to discriminate on basis of religion.

ISTANBUL, February 5 (CDN) — A European court on Tuesday (Feb. 2) ordered Turkey to remove the religious affiliation section from citizens’ identification cards, calling the practice a violation of human rights.

Religious minorities and in particular Christian converts in Turkey have faced discrimination because of the mandatory religion declaration on their identification cards, which was enforced until 2006. Since then, citizens are allowed to leave the “Religion” section of their IDs blank.

The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) “is a good thing,” said Zekai Tanyar, president of the Turkish Protestant Alliance, citing prejudices against Christian converts.

“[Religion on the ID] can cost people their jobs,” he said. “It has been known to affect whether they get a job or not, how people look at them, whether they are accepted for a post or an application of some sort. Therefore I think [the ruling] is a good and appropriate thing.”

Tanyar said the same principles would apply in the case of Muslims living in a country that had prejudices against Muslims. For converts in Turkey having to state their religion on their ID cards, “in practice, and in people’s experience, it has been negative.” 

The ECHR ruling came after a Turkish Muslim national filed a petition challenging that his identification card stated his religion as “Alevi” and not Muslim. Alevis practice a form of Shia Islam that is different from that of the Sunni Muslim majority.

The court found in a 6-to-1 vote that any mention of religion on an identity card violated human rights. The country was found to be in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights – to which Turkey is a signatory – specifically Article 9, which deals with freedom of religion and belief; Article 6, which is related to due process; and Article 12, which prohibits discrimination.

The presence of the “religion” box on the Turkish national identification card obliges individuals to disclose, against their will, information concerning an aspect of their personal convictions, the court ruled.

Although the government argued that indication of religion on identity cards did not compel Turks to disclose their religious convictions, the ECHR found that the state was making assessments of the applicant’s faith, thus breaching its duty of neutrality and impartiality.

In a statement on the verdict this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the ruling was in line with the government’s intentions.

“I don’t see the ECHR decision as abnormal,” he said, according to Turkish daily Taraf. “It’s not very important if it is removed.” 

The ECHR is independent of the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join. The rulings of the ECHR are binding for members of the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member, and must be implemented.

A Step in the Right Direction

Human rights lawyers welcomed the decision of the ECHR, saying it is a small step in the direction of democracy and secularism in Turkey.

“It is related to the general freedom of religion in our country,” said human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “They assume everyone is Muslim and automatically write this on your ID card, so this is a good reminder that, first of all, everyone is not Muslim in this country, and second, that being a Muslim is not an indispensible part of being Turkish.”

The lawyer said the judgment would have positive implications for religious minorities in Turkey who are subject to intolerance from the majority Muslim population. 

In 2000 Turkey’s neighbor Greece, a majority Christian Orthodox country, lifted the religion section from national IDs in order to adhere to European human rights standards and conventions, causing tumult among nationals.

“In Turkey, Greece or whatever European country, racism or intolerance or xenophobia are not rare occurrences if [religion] is written on your card, and if you are a minority group it makes you open to racist, xenophobic or other intolerant behaviors,” said Cengiz. “There might be times that the [religious] declaration might be very dangerous.”

International Implications

It is not yet known what, if any, effect the ECHR decision could have on the rest of the Middle East.

Because of its history, economic power and strategic location, Turkey is seen as a leader in the region. Like Turkey, many Middle Eastern countries have a place for religious affiliation on their identification cards. Unlike Turkey, listing religious affiliation is mandatory in most of these countries and almost impossible to change, even under court order.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), religious identification is used as a tool to deny jobs and even basic rights or services to religious minorities in many Middle Eastern countries.

“It’s a serious problem from a human rights point of view,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa for HRW, an international human rights organization. “It’s especially problematic when that requirement becomes a basis for discrimination.”

Stork said the identification cards shouldn’t have a listing for religion at all. He said the European decision may eventually be used in legal arguments in Middle Eastern courts, but it will be a long time before change is realized.

“It’s not like the Egyptian government is going to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gee, let’s do that,’” Stork said.

Egypt in particular is notorious for using religion on IDs to systematically discriminate against Coptic Christians and converts to Christianity. While it takes a day to change one’s religion from Christianity to Islam on their ID, the reverse is virtually impossible. 

Report from Compass Direct News 

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INDIA: OFFICIALS ON DEFENSIVE AT ‘WATCH LIST’ DESIGNATION


U.S. religious rights panel cites culture of impunity at authorities allowing atrocities.

NEW DELHI, August 18 (Compass Direct News) – Ahead of one-year remembrances of massive anti-Christian violence in the eastern state of Orissa, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has put India on its “Watch List” for the country’s violations of religious freedom, evoking strong reactions from the Indian government.

USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said in a statement on Wednesday (Aug. 12) that it was “extremely disappointing” that India “has done so little to protect and bring justice to its religious minorities under siege.”

The U.S. panel’s decision was “regrettable,” a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Vishnu Prakash, said in a statement on Thursday (Aug. 13), after the USCIRF put India on the list due to a “disturbing increase” in violence on minorities and a growing culture of impunity in the country.

Violence erupted in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in August-September 2008, killing more than 100 people and burning 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to rights groups such as the All India Christian Council (AICC), the Global Council of India Christians (GCIC) and the Christian Legal Association (CLA).

“India’s democratic institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, most notably state and central judiciaries and police, have emerged as unwilling or unable to seek redress for victims of the violence,” Leo said. “More must be done to ensure future violence does not occur and that perpetrators are held accountable.”

Disagreeing with the USCIRF report, the foreign ministry’s Prakash said India is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. “The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion and equality of opportunity to all its citizens, who live and work together in peace and harmony,” he said.

Christians were shocked by the foreign ministry spokesman’s claim that “aberrations, if any, are dealt with promptly within our legal framework, under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary and a vigilant media.”

Attorney Robin Ratnakar David, president of the CLA, told Compass that one year after the violence only six people have been convicted in just two cases of rioting, while several suspects have been acquitted in four such cases despite the formation of fast-track courts.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC, pointed out that the more than 50,000 people who fled to forests or took shelter in refugee camps have not returned home out of fear of Hindu nationalist extremists who demand they either convert to Hinduism or leave their villages.

He said there also had been several “pogroms against Muslims, often sponsored or condoned by the state.”

In 2002, India’s worst-ever anti-Muslim violence occurred in the western state of Gujarat. A compartment of a train, the Sabarmati Express, caught fire – or was set on fire (as claimed by Hindu extremists) – near the Godhra city railway station on Feb. 27. In the fire, 58 Hindu passengers, mainly supporters of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), were killed. The VHP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed it was an attack by Islamic terrorists; the ensuing violence killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Following the anti-Muslim violence, the USCIRF recommended that India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), its list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.

Designation on the Watch List means a country requires “close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the government,” according to USCIRF. The other countries on USCIRF’s Watch List are Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela.

CLA attorney David said the August-September 2008 violence in Kandhamal could have been prevented had the administration brought to justice those responsible for previous mayhem in December 2007. The December 2007 violence in Kandhamal killed at least four Christians, burned as many as 730 houses and 95 churches and rendered thousands homeless.

The attacks were launched under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on a VHP leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. It was the assassination of Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists) on Aug. 23, 2008 that sparked the second spate of violence in Kandhamal, as Hindu nationalists blamed non-Marxist, local Christians for it.

Dayal said the USCIRF’s latest conclusions could have been avoided if more action had been taken against the perpetrators of last year’s violence.

“The USCRIF action would not have been possible, and India would have been able to rebuff the U.S. scrutiny more effectively, if several thousand Christians were still not in refugee camps, if the killers were still not roaming scot-free and if witnesses, including widows, were not being coerced,” he said.

‘Indifferent’

Shashi Tharoor, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, told a private news channel that India did not need approbation from outside its borders.

“As far as we are concerned, we are essentially indifferent to how others view the situation,” he said. “In democracy, what matters to us is how we deal with our own internal issues. I don’t think we need any certificates from outside.”

He dismissed the report as meddling in internal affairs even though between June 2002 and February 2007 Tharoor served as under-secretary general for communications and public information for the United Nations, a body representative of international accountability in human rights.

In its annual report, India’s home (interior) ministry had acknowledged that the incidence of communal violence was high. It noted that in 2008, as many as 943 communal incidents (mainly against Muslims and Christians) took place in which 167 persons were killed and 2,354 persons were injured. The figures were up from those of 2007, when there were 761 incidents in which 99 persons were killed and 2,227 persons were injured.

Justifying its decision, the USCIRF report stated that several incidents of communal violence have occurred in various parts of the country resulting in many deaths and mass displacements, particularly of members of the Christian and Muslim minorities, “including major incidents against Christian communities within the 2008-2009 reporting period.”

“Because the government’s response at the state and local levels has been found to be largely inadequate and the national government has failed to take effective measures to ensure the rights of religious minorities in several states, the Commission decided to place India on its Watch List.”

The USCIRF had released its 2009 annual report on religious freedom across the globe on May 1 but put the India report on hold, planning to prepare it after a visit to the country in June. A USCIRF team planned to visit India to speak to the government and others concerning the situation in Kandhamal and Gujarat on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C. did not provide visas in time.

“USCIRF’s India chapter was released this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa,” Leo pointed out in last week’s statement.

‘Teflon-Coated State’

The AICC’s Dayal seemed pessimistic about a change in the government’s attitude.

“Unfortunately, nothing really impacts the government of India or the government of Indian states,” he said. “The state, and our social conscience, seems Teflon-coated. The patriotic media and political sector dismiss international scrutiny as interference in the internal affairs of India, and a beaten-into-submission section of the leadership of religious minorities assumes silence to be the best form of security and safety.”

Dr. Sajan George, the national convenor of the GCIC, said the report showed that India had become a “super violator” of human rights. The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said the U.S. panel’s report did not augur well with India’s claim to find a respectable place within the community of nations.

“India as an emerging economic power in the world should also endeavor to better its records of protecting human rights, particularly when it comes to religious freedom of its citizens,” Joseph said.

Joseph told Compass the USCIRF report was “a clear indication of the growing concern of the international community with India’s repeated failure to take decisive and corrective measures to contain religious intolerance.”

Christian leaders generally lauded the report, with Dayal saying, “India’s record on the persecution of minorities and the violation of religious freedom has been a matter of international shame for the nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

TANZANIA: TWO CHURCH BUILDINGS BURNED DOWN IN ZANZIBAR


Young radical Muslims suspected in attacks on island off coast of East Africa.

NAIROBI, Kenya, June 30 (Compass Direct News) – Two church buildings were razed Sunday night (June 28) on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar after worship services.

Suspected radical Muslims set the church buildings on fire on the outskirts of Unguja Township, on the island off the coast of East Africa, in what church leaders called the latest incidents of a rising tide of religious intolerance.

“We don’t want churches on our street,” read a flier dropped at the door of Charles Odilo, who had donated the plot on which the Evangelical Assemblies of God in Tanzania (EAGT) building stood. “Today we are going to burn the church, and if you continue we are going to burn your house also.”

With Christian movements making inroads in the Muslim-dominated area, the EAGT church and a Pentecostal Evangelical Fellowship in Africa (PEFA) church building a few miles away were burned down as a fierce warning, church leaders said.

The PEFA church building was located in the Kibondeni area eight miles from Unguja, and the EAGT structure was in the Fuoni area six miles from Unguja. Samuel Salehe Malanda, pastor of the 30-member PEFA church, said their building doubled as a nursery school on weekdays.

“In this church building there were six benches and a blackboard,” Malanda said. “The children have no place to do their learning. What are we going to do?”

Construction of the PEFA church building was in the final stage of completion last week, area church leaders said, when Masoud Jecha, assistant sheikh of Kibondeni, visited it and threatened Malanda.

“If you do not stop your construction, we will bring down the building,” Jecha told the pastor.

Malanda said the church reported the arson attack to police, who have purportedly begun an investigation, and the congregation has also sought the help of the chief leader of the rural government. The church’s police report included mention of Muslim extremist suspects bent on stopping the spread of Christianity in Zanzibar.

Church leaders said Odilo, who had donated his plot for the EAGT church building, was living in fear of the Islamic militants burning down his house, as they are known for carrying out their threats.

Pastor Paul Makungu said his EAGT church has 29 adult members and 13 children. He has also filed an arson report with local police, who are investigating suspects including radical Muslims and the chief neighborhood leader.

Bishop Obeid Fabian, chairman of an association of congregations known as the Fraternal Churches, said Christians in Zanzibar have received several threats.

“In this latest incident, the threats were spread through pamphlets,” he said. “At other times, Muslim youths have hurled stones on church rooftops and insulted Christians.”

On May 9 Muslim extremists expelled Zanzibar Pentecostal Church worshippers from their rented property at Ungunja Ukuu, on the outskirts of Zanzibar City (see http://www.compassdirect.org, “Radical Muslims Drive Church from Worship Place in Zanzibar”).

With no help forthcoming, church members have begun gathering for fellowship in their homes, Fabian said.

In Zanzibar City on April 17, government officials ordered Christians of the Church of God Zanzibar from their rented government building effective April 19, ostensibly to pave the way for renovations. But two months later, said pastor Lucian Mgayway, no renovation work had begun, and the government has since turned it into a business site.

The church had been worshipping in the building since October 2000.

“The churches affected since attacks began in April are at a critical stage,” said Fabian. “We as church leaders find it very difficult to bring our church members together who are now dispersed with no place of worship. The church needs financial support to get worship places for members as well security. But this seems not forthcoming.”

In predominately Sunni Muslim Zanzibar, churches face other hurdles. There are restrictions on getting land to build churches, open preaching is outlawed and there is limited time on national television to air Christian programs. In government schools, only Islamic Religious knowledge is taught, not Christian Religious Education.

Zanzibar is the informal designation for the island of Unguja in the Indian Ocean. The Zanzibar archipelago united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964.

Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf had settled in the region early in the 10th century after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia. The 1964 merger left island Muslims uneasy about Christianity, seeing it as a means by which mainland Tanzania might dominate them, and tensions have persisted.

Report from Compass Direct News

TANZANIA: ZANZIBAR EVICTS CONGREGATION FROM GOVERNMENT BUILDING


Officials on island cite ‘renovations,’ but pastor sees pandering to Muslims.

NAIROBI, Kenya, June 22 (Compass Direct News) – A pastor in Zanzibar City said his church is without a worship place after government officials, at the instigation of radical Islamists, evicted the congregation from their rented building on Tanzania’s Zanzibar Island off the coast of East Africa.

With just two days’ notice, government officials ordered Christians of the Church of God Zanzibar from their rented government building effective April 19, ostensibly to pave the way for renovations. But two months later, said pastor Lucian Mgayway, no renovation work has begun and none appears to be forthcoming.

The government has not only failed to renovate the building but has since turned it into a business site, Pastor Mgaywa said. The church had been worshipping in the building since October 2000.

In evicting the church from its building in the Kariakoo area of Zanzibar City, Pastor Mgaywa said, the government gave in to partisan demands.

“Our being told to vacate the premise by the government was a calculated move to disintegrate the church and to please the Muslims who do not want us to be in this particular area,” he said.

Forced to rent different worship venues each week, the congregation can no longer bear the financial burden that comes with it, said Pastor Mgaywa.

“Hire venues are available, but we can no longer afford it due to limited finances,” he said. “Reasons for our being kicked out are purely religious.”

The church’s 50 members had seen signs that the eviction was coming. With increasing frequency Muslim youths had passed by the church hurling insults because they felt Christians had intruded on their territory, Pastor Mgaywa said.

“The church had been experiencing stone-throwing on the roof of the building by the Muslims during worship service,” he said. He added that since the eviction notice, members of the congregation have been increasingly harassed by area Muslims.

Pastor Mgaywa said that after receiving the order on April 17 to vacate by April 19, the congregation sought an audience with the acting director of the Zanzibar Social Security Fund, identified only by his surname of Hassan. Officials, however, rejected the church’s request to continue using the premises.

Otherwise, when the government gave two days’ notice to vacate the premises for “renovations” to be carried out, the congregation obliged; they did not seek legal redress, he said, as they had trusted that officials’ stated intentions were genuine.

Now that the congregation is left without site options, the pastor said, he has been visiting members in their homes to worship together.

Shut-downs and attacks are not unknown on the predominantly Muslim, semi-autonomous island as a resurgent Christian movement makes inroads. On May 9 Muslim extremists expelled Zanzibar Pentecostal Church worshippers from their rented property at Ungunja Ukuu, on the outskirts of Zanzibar City (see “Radical Muslims Drive Church from Worship Place in Zanzibar”).

The attackers had been angered by a recent upsurge in Christian evangelism in the area. Radical Muslims had sent ominous threats to the Christians warning them to stop their activities.

The church had undertaken a two-day evangelism campaign culminating in an Easter celebration. On the morning of the assault, more than 20 church members had gathered for Saturday fellowship when word reached them that Muslim extremists were about to attack. As the radical group approached, the Christians fled in fear of their lives.

In predominately Sunni Muslim Zanzibar, churches face other hurdles. There are restrictions on getting land to build churches, open preaching is outlawed and there is limited time on national television to air Christian programs. In government schools, only Islamic Religious knowledge is taught, not Christian Religious Education.

Zanzibar is the informal designation for the island of Unguja in the Indian Ocean. The Zanzibar archipelago united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964.

Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf had settled in the region early in the 10th century after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia. The 1964 merger left island Muslims uneasy about Christianity, seeing it as a means by which mainland Tanzania might dominate them, and tensions have persisted.

Report from Compass Direct News

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


By Brian Nixon

Special to ASSIST News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s the issue?

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

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

Report from the Christian Telegraph

EGYPT: COURT DENIES RIGHT TO CONVERT TO SECOND CHRISTIAN


Maher El-Gohary provides requested documents, but judge dismisses them.

ISTANBUL, June 16 (Compass Direct News) – A Cairo judge on Saturday (June 13) rejected an Egyptian’s convert’s attempt to change his identification card’s religious status from Muslim to Christian, the second failed attempt to exercise constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom by a Muslim-born convert to Christianity.

For Maher El-Gohary, who has been attacked on the street, subjected to death threats and driven into hiding as a result of opening his case 10 months ago, Saturday’s outcome provided nothing in the way of consolation.

“I am disappointed with what happened and shocked with the decision, because I went to great lengths and through a great deal of hardship,” he said.

El-Gohary follows Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy as only the second Muslim-born convert in Egypt to request such a change. El-Gohary filed suit against the Ministry of the Interior for rejecting his application in August last year.

In contrast to their angry chants and threats in previous hearings, lawyers representing the government sat quietly as Judge Hamdy Yasin read his decision in a session that lasted no more than 10 minutes, according to one of El-Gohary’s lawyers, Nabil Ghobreyal.

The judge rejected El-Gohary’s application even though the convert provided a baptism certificate and a letter of acceptance into the Coptic Orthodox Church that the judge had demanded.

“The judge said he will not accept the [baptism] certificate from Cyprus or the letter from Father Matthias [Nasr Manqarious],” said Ghobreyal. “Even if he gets a letter from the pope, the judge said he would not accept it, because the remit of the church is to deal with Christians, not to deal with Muslims who convert to Christianity; this is outside their remit.”

El-Gohary sounded perplexed and frustrated as he spoke by telephone with Compass about the verdict.

“The judge asked for letters of acceptance and baptism,” he said. “It was really not easy to get them, in fact it was very hard, but if he was not going to use these things, why did he ask for them in the first place? We complied with everything and got it for him, and then it was refused. What was the point of all this?”

A full explanation of Yasin’s decision to deny the request will be published later this week. The judge’s comments on Saturday, however, provided some indication of what the report will contain.

“The judge alluded to the absence of laws pertaining to conversion from Islam to Christianity and suggested an article be drawn up to deal with this gap in legislation,” said Ghobreyal.

High Court Appeal

Such a law would be favorable to converts. Thus far, hopeful signs for converts include a recent decision to grant Baha’is the right to place a dash in the religion section of their ID cards and a High Court ruling on June 9 stating that “reverts” (Christians wishing to revert to Christianity after embracing Islam) are not in breach of law and should be allowed to re-convert.

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.

No Egyptian clergyman has issued a baptismal certificate to a convert, but El-Gohary was able to travel to Cyprus to get a baptismal certificate from a well-established church. In April the Coptic, Cairo-based Manqarious 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 Manqarious.

El-Gohary’s case could go before the High Court, his lawyer said.

“This is not the end; this is just the beginning,” said Ghobreyal. “I am going to a higher court, I have ideas and I am going to fight all the way through. It’s a long road.”

Ghobreyal’s tenacious attitude is matched by his client’s.

“I am going to persevere, I will not give up,” said El-Gohary. “Appealing is the next step and I am ready for the steps after that. I am going to bring this to the attention of the whole world.”

The judge had received a report from the State Council, a consultative body of Egypt’s Administrative Court, which expressed outrage at El-Gohary’s “audacity” to request a change in the religious designation on his ID. The report claimed that his case was a threat to societal order and violated sharia (Islamic law).

El-Gohary’s lawyers noted that the report is not based on Egypt’s civil law, nor does it uphold the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights that Egypt has signed. It stated that those who leave Islam, “apostates” such as El-Gohary, should be subject to the death sentence.

Report from Compass Direct News

TANZANIA: RADICAL MUSLIMS DRIVE CHURCH FROM WORSHIP PLACE IN ZANZIBAR


Authorities do nothing to help threatened Christians.

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 26 (Compass Direct News) – Sunday worship in a house church near Zanzibar City, on a Tanzanian island off the coast of East Africa, did not take place for the third week running on Sunday (May 24) after Muslim extremists expelled worshippers from their rented property.

Radical Muslims on May 9 drove members of Zanzibar Pentecostal Church (Kanisa la Pentecoste Zanzibar) from worship premises in a rented house at Ungunja Ukuu, on the outskirts of Zanzibar City. Restrictions on purchasing land for church buildings have slowed the Christians’ efforts to find a new worship site.

Angered by a recent upsurge in Christian evangelism in the area, church members said, radical Muslims had sent several threats to the Christians warning them to stop their activities. The church had undertaken a two-day, door-to-door evangelism campaign culminating in an Easter celebration.

“Radical Muslims reported the church campaign to [village elder Mnemo] Mgomba, who in turn ordered that no Christian activity to be carried out in his area of jurisdiction,” said Obeid Fabian Hofi, bishop of the church.

On the morning of the attack, more than 20 church members had gathered for Saturday fellowship when word reached them that Muslim extremists were about to attack. As the radical group approached, the Christians fled in fear of their lives.

“The group was shouting, saying, ‘We do not want the church to be in our locality – they should leave the place and never come back again,’” said one church member who requested anonymity.

A Muslim had rented his house to a member of the church, Leah Shabani, who later decided to make it a place of fellowship. The church, which has been in existence for seven years, had reached more than 30 members at the beginning of this year, most of them from the Tanzanian mainland. Without their worship site, Bishop Hofi said, some members are traveling long distances into Zanzibar City to worship.

When the church reported the attack to area chief Jecha Ali, members said, he told them that he could not help them.

“This property is not mine – if the owner has refused to allow you people to pray there, then I have nothing to do,” Ali told them.

When Bishop Hofi went to police in Ungunja Ukuu about the attack, officers also told him that the landlord had the right to refuse to rent to the Christian.

“The head of police said he could not help us, arguing that it was the prerogative of the plot’s owner to decide who to lease his property to,” he said.

Police promised to investigate, but Bishop Hofi said he was not convinced they would take any action against those who had attacked his congregation.

“To date no action has been taken by the police,” he said. “I am very concerned about the spiritual situation of my flock, seeing that my appeal has landed in deaf ears. No one is ready to listen to our grievances. We are fighting a losing battle since the administration is headed by Muslims.”

Bishop Hofi said he has decided to appeal for prayer and financial support from churches in Zanzibar to buy property for a church building. He said church members have spoken with Mercy Baraza, a Muslim from the Tanzanian mainland, who has pledged to sell her Zanzibar plot to them.

“The church is now raising money with the hope that the members will soon have a place to worship,” Bishop Hofi told Compass by telephone. “I know getting the money is easy, but to get someone to sell the land might be difficult, especially for worship purpose, but we are trusting God for His providence. We shall be very grateful for prayers and any support towards the purchase of the plot for church worship.”

The prospective site is near a police station, he said, giving him optimism that if they obtain it they could worship peaceably.

“It will be a secure place for the church,” he said.

In predominately Sunni Muslim Zanzibar, the church faces numerous hurdles. There are restrictions on getting land to build churches, open preaching is outlawed and there is limited time on national television to air Christian programs. In government schools, only Islamic Religious knowledge is taught, not Christian Religious Education.

Zanzibar is the informal designation for the island of Unguja in the Indian Ocean. The Zanzibar archipelago united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964.

Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf had settled in the region early in the 10th century after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia. The 1964 merger left island Muslims uneasy about Christianity, seeing it as a means by which mainland Tanzania would dominate them.

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