A major aftershock/earthquake has struck Christchurch, causing more damage to the devastated city.
A major aftershock/earthquake has struck Christchurch, causing more damage to the devastated city.
After painful effort to change ID card, Christians flee – to similar fate.
CAIRO, Egypt, March 21 (CDN) — When the plane carrying Maher El-Gohary and his daughter, Dina Mo’otahssem, took off from Cairo International Airport last month, they both wept with joy. After spending two-and-a-half years in hiding for leaving Islam to become Christians, they were elated by their newfound freedom.
They also felt secure that once they arrived in Syria, they would quickly obtain visas to the United States and start a new life. That hope soon proved unfounded.
After spending more than a week and a half unable to obtain a visa to the United States or to any country in Europe, they realized they may have traded in the reality of being prisoners in their own country for being refugees in another. And as El-Gohary watches the weeks pass and his resources dwindle, he said the stress is almost unbearable.
“I feel like we’ve stepped out of a prison cell and into a fire,” he said. “We are in very, very bad conditions … My daughter and I divide the bottles of water to live, because there is no income.”
Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, 58, gained notoriety in Egypt after he sued the government in August 2008 to gain the right to change the religion listed on his state-issued ID card from Islam to Christianity. In Egypt, ID cards play a critical role in a person’s life, being used for everything from opening a bank account and renting an apartment to receiving medical care.
The listed religious affiliation, whether a card-holder subscribes to it or not, also determines whether the person is subject to Islamic civil law. The listed religious designation determines what state-mandated religion classes minors are required to take in school. El-Gohary said he filed the suit so his daughter, then 15, could opt out of the religious classes and would not be subject to the persecution he suffered when he became a Christian in his 20s.
It is a crime punishable by imprisonment to have no ID card in Egypt.
The suit sparked outrage throughout Egypt. Both El-Gohary and his daughter were publicly branded apostates in a country where 84 percent of Muslims think those who leave Islam should be executed, according to a study released by the Pew Research Center in December. The same month the suit was filed in 2008, El-Gohary and his daughter were forced into hiding.
For two-and-a-half years, El-Gohary shifted back and forth among several apartments in Cairo and Alexandria, usually once every month. Even in hiding, the two were harassed regularly by Egypt’s dreaded State Security Intelligence service (SSI) and assaulted repeatedly by others, including someone pouring acid on Dina, El-Gohary said.
While in hiding, El-Gohary tried repeatedly to leave Egypt, but officials at the Ministry of the Interior blocked him at every attempt. On at least one occasion, they seized his passport. In December 2010, after a long legal battle, El-Gohary got a court decision ordering the Ministry of the Interior to allow him to travel, but he said it still took several weeks for the government to comply with the order; the Jan. 25-Feb. 11 revolution didn’t hurt, El-Gohary said.
Out of Egypt
After the national demonstrations that led to the removal of both President Hosni Mubarak and Minister of Interior Habib Al-Adly, El-Gohary and his daughter went to Cairo International Airport on Feb. 22 to leave the county. They came prepared with their newly issued passports, the court order and myriad documents to prove they had the right to leave the country. Even so, authorities took the two aside for interrogation at the airport.
“My daughter and I went to the counter of the airport to the manager, then they took us to the SSI,” El-Gohary said. “We spent an hour talking to an officer trying to tell him, ‘We spent ages during Habib Al-Adly’s time, and even now after the revolution, we don’t have the right to leave?’”
According to El-Gohary, the guard asked him if he really wanted to leave the country.
“Yes,” El-Gohary replied. “I have a court order against Al-Adly, and I have the right to leave and the freedom to travel outside the country.” As if to add insult to more than two years of injury, the SSI officers told El-Gohary that Egypt was “their country” and to “come back anytime you want to.”
El-Gohary credits the revolution as the reason he was allowed to leave Egypt, saying it was a miracle “from God.”
They chose to go to Syria because Egyptian citizens are not required to have visas to visit there. After contact with a U.S. organization that concentrates on religious freedom, El-Gohary expected it would be easy to get a visa to the United States, where his wife lives. But he said he has been unable to obtain an entry visa there or to any country where he will feel safe. He went to a U.N. office in Syria seeking assistance; he was given an appointment to come back on April 20.
“I wasn’t expecting, after all this suffering and all these years, that…” El-Gohary said, cutting himself off. “The series of persecution is not finished.”
Although they don’t live under the same type of threats as they did in Egypt, El-Gohary and Dina now live in an apartment where they still watch everything they say and everyone with whom they talk. They still spend much of their time trapped between the four walls of their apartment because Syria, El-Gohary said, is a country where converts to Christianity from Islam are persecuted.
“The danger is still there,” El-Gohary said. “We don’t get out of the house. We don’t meet people. We don’t tell people what we are doing or talk to them about our situation. Because we don’t want someone to say, ‘Why are you applying to the U.N.?’ There are still a lot of enemies.”
Dina, now 17, said that although leaving Egypt was “like a miracle,” she is devastated by the prospect of having to spend more time with her life on hold. She said she is just as scared in Syria as she was in Egypt.
“We’re really, really tired of all this suffering,” she said. “I’ve lost two years of my life. I want to finish school.”
Muslim converts to Christianity in Syria were sometimes forced to leave their place of residence due to societal pressure last year, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report. While there is no official state religion in Syria, the constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic law is a principal source of legislation.
With strict monitoring and curtailing of militant Islam, the government in Syria has long been considered a moderate regime. The government’s fear of violent responses by Islamic extremists to increasing conversions to Christianity, however, was at least partially responsible for the closing of six buildings where Christians were meeting last year, according to Christian support organization Open Doors. Noting that several Christians were arrested and interrogated in 2010, the organization’s World Watch List bumped Syria’s ranking up to 38th place among nations in which persecution of Christians takes place, from position 41 the previous year.
Syria is 90 percent Muslim, and 6.34 percent of its 22.5 million population is Christian, according to Operation World.
Though El-Gohary and his daughter have a dark outlook on their current situation, they are still grateful.
“Without God’s love, we would have been dead by now,” El-Gohary said. “Getting out of Egypt itself was a victory from God.”
Dina said she also is thankful, but that as she gets older she is becoming increasingly preoccupied by one wish.
“I want to get out so I can finish my studies,” she said. “I want to go into a church and out of a church without being scared of being killed.”
Report from Compass Direct News
‘Kill all the Christians,’ local imam tells villagers.
CAIRO, March 8 (CDN) — A Muslim mob in a village south of Cairo last weekend attacked a church building and burned it down, almost killing the parish priest after an imam issued a call to “Kill all the Christians,” according to local sources.
The attack started on Friday evening (March 4) in the village of Sool, located in the city of Helwan 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Cairo, and lasted through most of Saturday. A local imam, Sheik Ahmed Abu Al-Dahab, issued the call during Friday afternoon prayers, telling area Muslims to kill the Christians because they had “no right” to live in the village. The attack started several hours later.
The Rev. Hoshea Abd Al-Missieh, a parish priest who narrowly escaped death in the fire, said the clamor of the church being torn apart sounded like “hatred.”
“I was in the attack, but I can’t describe it,” he said. “The sound of the church being destroyed that I heard – I can’t describe it, how horrible it was.”
According to villagers, the mob broke into the Church of the Two Martyrs St. George and St. Mina, and as they chanted “Allahu Akbar [God is greater],” looted it, demolished the walls with sledgehammers and set a fire that burned itself out the next morning. Looters removed anything valuable, including several containers holding the remains of venerated Copts – most of whom were killed in other waves of persecution – then stomped and kicked the containers like soccer balls, witnesses said.
After the fire went out, the mob tore down what little remained of the church structure. The group of Muslims then held prayers at the site and began collecting money to build a mosque where the church building once stood, said the assistant bishop of Giza the Rev. Balamoun Youaqeem.
“They destroyed the church completely,” he said. “All that was left is a few columns and things like that. As a building, it’s all gone.”
During the fire, Al-Missieh was trapped in a house near the church building that was filling up with smoke. He faced a difficult dilemma – choke or burn to death in the house, or face an angry mob of thousands screaming for blood.
“When the smoke was too much, I told myself, ‘I am dying anyway,’ so I decided I would go out and whatever happened, happened,” Al-Missieh said.
When he went outside, a man with a rifle told the priest to follow him. At first Al-Missieh was reluctant, he said, but the man fired off two rounds from the rifle and told the crowd to step away.
“No one will touch this man, he is with me,” the priest remembered the man yelling at the mob. Al-Missieh was taken to a house where he met three other workers who were at the church when it was attacked. The men all relayed stories similar to the priest’s.
Friday’s attack was another in a long list of disproportionate responses in Egypt to a rumor of an affair between a Muslim and a Copt. Earlier this month, Sool villagers accused a Muslim woman in her 30s and a Coptic man in his 40s, both of them married, of being involved with each other. On Wednesday (March 2) a village council of Coptic and Muslim leaders convened and agreed that the man should leave the village in order to avoid sectarian violence.
The next day, the woman’s cousin killed the woman’s father in a fight about the honor of the family. The same day, the cousin died of wounds he sustained in the fight. By Friday, Al-Dahab, the local imam, had blamed the entire incident on Christians in the village and called on all Muslims in Sool to kill them.
Because of the attack, Copts in Sool fled to adjacent villages. The women who remained in the village are now being sexually assaulted, according to Youaqeem, who added that he is receiving phone calls from women in the village begging for help. Those reports have not yet been independently confirmed.
“Everybody tried to find a way to get out,” Youaqeem said.
Groups of Muslims have set up blockades around Sool, declaring they intend to turn it into an “Islamic village,” Youaqeem said.
On Sunday (March 6), roughly 2,000 people gathered outside the Radio and Television Building in Cairo to protest the attack and what Copts see as a long-standing government refusal to address or even acknowledge the persecution of Christians in Egypt. Protestors also accused the government of not sending enough troops to the village to control the situation. Holding up crosses and signs, the protestors shouted the name of Jesus and chanted, “We need our church.”
Soldiers armed with AK-47s with fixed-sheathed bayonets held the crowd back from the building as several priests took turns addressing the crowd. When the Giza parish priest, Bishop Anba Theodosius, said the army had pledged to rebuild the church but would not give a written guarantee of the promise, the crowd became enraged and pushed through the line of soldiers.
No one was injured in the push. More protests about the attack continued Tuesday in Cairo.
Youaqeem said the attack has devastated and enraged the Coptic community, but he sees hope.
“As they say – ‘All things work to the good of those who love the Lord,’” he said.
Report from Compass Direct News
Islamic extremist insurgents abducted 15-year-old nearly eight months ago.
MOGADISHU, Somalia, October 6 (CDN) — An underground Christian family from central Somalia is agonizing over the kidnapping of their daughter nearly eight months ago by Islamic militants bent on punishing those who leave Islam.
Ghelle Hassan Aded told Compass that he has not seen his 15-year-old daughter, Anab Ghelle Hassan, since Islamic extremists from the al Shabaab (“the Youth”) insurgency kidnapped her on Feb. 15. Certain that the militants would come after the rest of the family, they immediately fled, said Aded, who spoke with Compass from an undisclosed location in Somalia’s autonomous region of Puntland.
The family formed part of a growing movement of underground Christians in Dhusa Mareb, capital of Galgaduud Region in central Somalia, said other sources in Somalia who confirmed the kidnapping. Aded and his family had become Christians in 2001 while living in Kampala, Uganda. In 2008, the family returned to Somalia and settled in Dhusa Mareb, where their tribesmen live.
The al Shabaab insurgents fighting the Transitional Federal Government soon began monitoring the family’s activities. Aded said they took note that the family did not attend mosque, and on several occasions the insurgents or other Muslims questioned him. In Somalia, Christians hold small meetings in secret and are advised not to keep Bibles or other Christian literature at their homes; they often have to keep them buried in a hole.
On Feb. 15, Aded and his wife sent young Hassan to the market to buy food, he said; relatives told them later that day that they saw al Shabaab insurgents kidnap her at 10 a.m. as she was going about her business at the local market. Knowing that the insurgents would soon come after the rest of his family, Aded said, he fled immediately with his wife, 11-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son to Puntland.
At their location in Puntland, the family appeared devastated by the kidnapping, with Aded’s wife often weeping over the loss, but they said they maintain hope of seeing Anab again.
“We are increasingly afraid of being discovered by the militants on our trail and wish to go back to Kampala as soon as possible,” Aded said. “After months of monitoring, the militants were convinced that we were practicing Christianity, contrary to their banning of all other religions in Somalia.”
Al Shabaab insurgents control much of southern and central Somalia and have embarked on a campaign to rid the country of its hidden Christian population. With estimates of al Shabaab’s size ranging from 3,000 to 7,000, the insurgents seek to impose a strict version of sharia (Islamic law).
Al Shabaab was among several splinter groups that emerged after Ethiopian forces removed the Islamic Courts Union, a group of sharia courts, from power in Somalia in 2006. Said to have ties with al Qaeda, al Shabaab has been designated a terrorist organization by several western governments.
The transitional government in Mogadishu fighting to retain control of the country treats Christians little better than the al Shabaab insurgents do. While proclaiming himself a moderate, President Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed has embraced a version of sharia that mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam.
Report from Compass Direct News
Assailants, still at large, abduct and threaten blind volunteer, associate and pregnant wife.
NEW DELHI, September 6 (CDN) — A visually impaired Christian and his friend accused drunken Buddhists of abducting and assaulting them last week after the blind volunteer distributed relief material in a Buddhist-majority town in a region of India devastated by recent floods.
The attackers are still at large after the assault on Wednesday (Sept .1) in the town of Leh in Jammu and Kashmir state’s Ladakh region, where flooding and landslides destroyed hundreds of houses and killed around 200 people on Aug. 6.
The attackers, identified as members of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), one of the region’s largest and most influential Non-Governmental Organizations, abducted Ram Kumar Thapa, Stanzin Chosphel and his pregnant wife Putali Sherpa because of their Christian faith and beat the men, the victims said.
Thapa, a blind music teacher in his 30s, was abducted from Mahabodhi Gate in Choglamsar area in Leh, where he was distributing relief material, at around 7 p.m. on Wednesday, according to the complaint he filed on Thursday (Sept. 2) with the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission.
LBA members were upset that Thapa was preaching Christianity to displaced residents, according to his complaint. The Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief, a Christian relief agency, is rebuilding homes for the displaced people, mostly Buddhists, in the area.
“I was attacked physically by several unknown assailants before other witnesses nearby,” Thapa stated in the complaint. “Then these men forced me into a vehicle and continued beating me all over my body as they spoke in Ladakhi to each other.”
Thapa, from the eastern state of West Bengal, also stated that the Buddhists contemplated killing him. “They discussed whether to take my life or return to the ‘office,’” he said.
The assailants took Thapa to the office of the LBA in Soma Monastery, where a Buddhist monk was also present, and beat him again, he stated. He was then moved to a room where he could hear the voice of his friend, Chosphel, with his pregnant wife.
Chosphel, a convert from Buddhism, is from Ladakh and his wife is from Nepal. The Buddhist assailants had taken them from their house in the Skalzaling area in Leh after Thapa, under pressure from the LBA members, identified them as his associates, according to the Christian victims.
The attackers showed Thapa’s bruised and bleeding face to Chosphel to warn him against continuing as a Christian, Thapa stated. He was then taken back to the vehicle.
“They placed a gunny sack with a rope onto my lap and explained that this would be my last bed … [after] they throw me into the Indus River and see if a blind man can swim and save himself,” Thapa stated. “I became terribly afraid, since I could smell alcohol on their breath as we sat in the vehicle.”
Thapa begged that his life be spared “so I could see my wife, who must be worried since it was late now.” The kidnappers replied, “Your wife will see you when she finds your body by the river bank,” he stated.
Thapa and his wife, also visually impaired, teach and live at Mahabodhi Residential School for handicapped children.
Thapa stated that when he asked what they wanted from him, “they said I had to leave Ladakh with my family within two days or else they would kill me and my family. It was around 1 a.m. when they dropped me back to my house, bruised and trembling.”
Thapa went to the Housing Colony Police Station on Thursday (Sept. 2) and found out that Chosphel also was there to file his complaint.
Chosphel confirmed that the “office” they were taken to belonged to the LBA. In his complaint to the commission, Chosphel said that around 15 “heavily drunken” men came to abduct him and his wife in their black Bolero, a mid-size SUV.
In the courtyard of the LBA facility, the Buddhists beat Chosphel before his wife, who pleaded for them to stop and asked why they were being assaulted.
“They threatened to beat her as well if she did not keep silent,” Chosphel stated. “Then they dragged me into a room and gagged my mouth so I could not cry out as they beat me with rubber pipes and rods and fists continuously. All along they kept telling me to leave my wife and also renounce my faith in Christianity and return to Buddhism.”
The men released the couple at around 12:30 a.m. after giving them two days to leave Leh or convert to Buddhism, Chosphel stated, “or else they will chop my wife into pieces and kill me and also kill my family … who are still practicing Buddhists.”
The attackers also confiscated their mobile phones.
The victims told Compass that they were still facing a threat on their lives even after filing complaints with police.
Additional Superintendent of Police Stanzin Nurboo told Compass that no one had been arrested because the victims could not name the accused.
Chosphel and his wife, however, told Compass that they would be able to identify the attackers if they saw their faces; at press time, however, they said police had not contacted any of them to do so.
Religious conversion is a sensitive issue in Leh, which borders Pakistan and Tibet, as it is seen as an attack on its distinct religious and cultural identity.
Citing religious and cultural differences with the otherwise Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state, some residents of Ladakh have been asking for union territory status for the region.
As a concession, the Ladakh region was bifurcated into Muslim-majority Kargil district and Buddhist-majority Leh district in 1979, and the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council was also created in 1995 to grant some autonomy to Leh and Kargil districts.
The government of Jammu and Kashmir continues to have responsibility for maintaining law and order and is in charge of the judicial system, communications and higher education.
Of the population of 117,232, over 80 percent of the people in Leh are Buddhist. Muslims make up around 15 percent of the population, Hindus 3 percent and Christians 0.2 percent.
Report from Compass Direct News
Hearing could determine whether Jack Teitel is transferred from mental hospital.
ISTANBUL, September 3 (CDN) — An Israeli man accused of planting a homemade bomb that almost killed the son of a Messianic Jewish pastor in Ariel, Israel has been declared competent to stand trial.
Jack Teitel, 37, who in November was indicted on two charges of pre-meditated murder, three charges of attempted murder and numerous weapons charges, is expected to enter a plea on Sunday (Sept. 5).
David and Leah Ortiz, parents of the teenage victim, said that the 10 months since the indictment have been difficult but their stance toward Teitel remains the same; they have forgiven him for the attack but want him to face justice before a judge and seek salvation from God.
If nothing else, they said, they want him incarcerated to keep other Messianic Jews from being attacked either by Teitel or those following his lead.
“He’s dangerous,” Leah Ortiz said. “He’s an extremely dangerous person. He’s totally unrepentant.”
Sunday’s plea will open the way for a trial expected to start within weeks and last for more than six months. Officials at a hearing possibly the same day as the scheduled plea will decide whether Teitel will be moved from the mental hospital where he has been held for most of his detainment.
It is possible Teitel will enter no plea on Sunday. He has publically stated that he doesn’t “recognize the jurisdiction” of Jerusalem District Court.
On March 20, 2008, Ami Ortiz, then 15, opened a gift basket that someone had left anonymously at his family’s home in Ariel. The basket disappeared in a massive explosion that destroyed much of the Ortiz home and shattered Ami’s body.
When he arrived at the hospital, Ami was clinging to life. He was bleeding profusely, had burns covering much of his body and was full of needles, screws and glass fragments the bomb-maker had built into the device.
The doctors had little hope for him and listed his condition as “anush,” meaning his soul was about to leave his body.
After countless hours of surgery and even more spent in prayer, Ami went from “near dead,” to burned and blind and eventually to playing basketball on a national youth team. Both his parents said his recovery was nothing short of a miracle from God.
‘Most Radical Evangelist’
When Teitel was arrested in October 2009, police found him hanging up posters celebrating the shooting of two teenagers at a gay and lesbian community center in Tel Aviv.
Teitel’s background is still somewhat of a mystery. An emigrant from the United States, he became an Israeli citizen in 2000, got married not long afterwards and is the father of four children. Usually portrayed in Israeli media as part ultra-orthodox ideologue and part fringe survivalist, it is clear that Teitel was motivated by a fascination with end-times prophecy and an extremely violent interpretation of Judaism and Jewish nationalism.
He is a self-described follower of such anti-missionary groups as Yad L’Achim. According to authorities, Teitel sought to kill those he deemed enemies of traditional Judaism: Palestinians, homosexuals, liberal Jewish intellectuals and, in the Ortiz case, Messianic Jews.
David Ortiz is well known in Israel, both for his activities in the Jewish community and for his efforts to expose Palestinians to the gospel.
“He said the reason why he wanted to kill me was that I was the most radical in evangelism, so I had to be first,” said Ortiz, who has seen transcripts of Teitel’s confessions.
Along with the Ortiz case, police said Teitel is responsible for the June 1997 shooting death of Samir Bablisi, a Palestinian taxi driver who was found in his cab with a single bullet wound to his head. Two months later, police said, Teitel allegedly shot Isa Jabarin, a Palestinian shepherd who was giving him driving directions to Jerusalem.
Police also said that Teitel attempted to burn down a monastery and unsuccessfully planted several bombs. He also is accused of the September 2008 bombing of Zeev Sternhell of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The bombing left the emeritus history professor slightly wounded.
During one court hearing, Teitel flashed a victory sign and reportedly said, “It was a pleasure and honor to serve my God. God is proud of what I have done. I have no regrets.”
Long Road to Trial
David Ortiz said that as bad as the bombing itself was, waiting for the trial has been yet another ordeal.
As officials investigated the bombing, police harassed Messianic Jewish friends of theirs, saying, “If you are Jewish, why did you become a Christian?” Ortiz said.
The Ortiz family had to sue police and pay 5,000 shekels (US$1,320) to obtain a copy of a security camera video belonging to the family that police had seized as evidence. The video shows Teitel laying the basket at the Ortiz home.
“We had to hire a lawyer because we understood clearly that our rights as victims had to be protected,” said David Ortiz.
Particularly galling to the pastor has been the hands-off response of government officials to the attack.
“We are the only family in Israel that has been a victim of an attack that hasn’t been visited by a government official,” he said, adding that officials have made no public condemnation of the attack. “If the leaders do not condemn an act, it emboldens others who want to do the same thing.”
According to the International Religious Freedom Report 2009 issued by the U.S. Department of State, there are 10,000 Messianic Jews in Israel. The report documents several cases of violence against Messianic Jews, including cases where baptismal services have been disrupted, Messianic Jews have been beaten and Christian literature has been torched.
God Shows Up
Leah Ortiz said that what Teitel intended for evil, God meant for good in order to reach people.
“The Lord has taken the worst tragedy that could possibly happen and has used it for the greatest good that He possibly could,” she said.
The incident, and how the Ortiz family has dealt with it, has become a lightning rod of sorts in Israel, forcing people to think more seriously about the claims of the Messianic Jews.
In a place filled with the type of hatred that causes people to strap bombs to their bodies to kill others, the attack has given people a reason to think and, for some, to choose forgiveness and peace.
Ortiz said he has gotten calls from Palestinians who had said if he could forgive a man who bombed his child, then they can forgive what has happened to them. Orthodox Jews have called him and asked forgiveness for their hatred toward Messianic Jews. Muslims have called Ortiz offering blood for transfusions for Ami.
Ortiz said he was devastated after the attack, but that he has been blessed to see God working “supernaturally” through the incident. Ami is an example of God’s grace and healing power, Ortiz said, explaining, “Ami has been a wonder within my own eyes. How could anyone who went through so much be so peaceful?”
Ami’s high school friends, most of them not Messianic Jews, have sought him out and asked him about the ordeal. Ortiz said he thinks God will use him in a big way.
His wife explained, “I have that sense this is about something bigger. This is something bigger than what has happened to us and to our family.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Taliban takes responsibility, but medical organization unsure of killers’ identity.
ISTANBUL, August 12 (CDN) — The killing of a team of eye medics, including eight Christian aid workers, in a remote area of Afghanistan last week was likely the work of opportunistic gunmen whose motives are not yet clear, the head of the medical organization said today.
On Friday (Aug. 6), 10 medical workers were found shot dead next to their bullet-ridden Land Rovers. The team of two Afghan helpers and eight Christian foreigners worked for the International Assistance Mission (IAM). They were on their way back to Kabul after having provided medical care to Afghans in one of the country’s remotest areas.
Afghan authorities have not been conclusive about who is responsible for the deaths nor the motivation behind the killings. In initial statements last week the commissioner of Badakhshan, where the killings took place, said it was an act of robbers. In the following days, the Taliban took responsibility for the deaths.
The Associated Press reported that a Taliban spokesman said they had killed them because they were spies and “preaching Christianity.” Another Taliban statement claimed that they were carrying Dari-language Bibles, according to the news agency. Initially the attack was reported as a robbery, which IAM Executive Director Dirk Frans said was not true.
“There are all these conflicting reports, and basically our conclusion is that none of them are true,” Frans told Compass. “This was an opportunistic attack where fighters had been displaced from a neighboring district, and they just happened to know about the team. I think this was an opportunistic chance for them to get some attention.”
A new wave of tribal insurgents seeking territory, mineral wealth and smuggling routes has arisen that, taken together, far outnumber Taliban rebels, according to recent U.S. intelligence reports.
Frans added that he is expecting more clarity as authorities continue their investigations.
He has denied the allegation that the members of their medical team were proselytizing.
“IAM is a Christian organization – we have never hidden this,” Frans told journalists in Kabul on Monday (Aug. 9). “Indeed, we are registered as such with the Afghan government. Our faith motivates and inspires us – but we do not proselytize. We abide by the laws of Afghanistan.”
IAM has been registered as a non-profit Christian organization in Afghanistan since 1966.
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former political candidate, dismissed the Taliban’s claims that team members were proselytizing or spying, according to the BBC.
“These were dedicated people,” Abdullah said according to the BBC report. “Tom Little used to work in Afghanistan with his heart – he dedicated half of his life to service the people of Afghanistan.”
Abdullah had trained as an eye surgeon under Tom Little, 62, an optometrist who led the team that was killed last week. Little and his family had lived in Afghanistan for more than 30 years with IAM providing eye care.
IAM has provided eye care and medical help in Afghanistan since 1966. In the last 44 years, Frans estimates they have provided eye care to more than 5 million Afghans.
Frans said he doesn’t think that Christian aid workers are particularly targeted, since every day there are many Afghan casualties, and the insurgents themselves realize they need the relief efforts.
“We feel that large parts of the population are very much in favor of what we do,” he said. “The people I met were shocked [by the murders]; they knew the members of the eye care team, and they were shocked that selfless individuals who are going out of their way to actually help the Afghan people … they are devastated.”
The team had set up a temporary medical and eye-treatment camp in the area of Nuristan for two and a half weeks, despite heavy rains and flooding affecting the area that borders with Pakistan.
Nuristan communities had invited the IAM medical team. Afghans of the area travelled from the surrounding areas to receive treatment in the pouring rain, said Little’s wife in a CNN interview earlier this week, as she recalled a conversation with her husband days before he was shot.
Little called his wife twice a day and told her that even though it was pouring “sheets of rain,” hundreds of drenched people were gathering from the surrounding areas desperate to get medical treatment.
The Long Path Home
The team left Nuristan following a difficult path north into Badakhshan that was considered safer than others for reaching Kabul. Frans said the trek took two days in harsh weather, and the team had to cross a mountain range that was 5,000 meters high.
“South of Nuristan there is a road that leads into the valley where we had been asked to come and treat the eye patients, and a very easy route would have been through the city of Jalalabad and then up north to Parun, where we had planned the eye camp,” Frans told Compass. “However, that area of Nuristan is very unsafe.”
When the team ended their trek and boarded their vehicles, the armed group attacked them and killed all but one Afghan member of the team. Authorities and IAM believe the team members were killed between Aug. 4 and 5. Frans said he last spoke with Little on Aug. 4.
IAM plans eye camps in remote areas every two years due to the difficulty of preparing for the work and putting a team together that is qualified and can endure the harsh travel conditions, he said.
“We have actually lost our capacity to do camps like this in remote areas because we lost two of our veteran people as well as others we were training to take over these kinds of trips,” Frans said.
The team of experts who lost their lives was composed of two Afghan Muslims, Mahram Ali and another identified only as Jawed; British citizen Karen Woo, German Daniela Beyer, and U.S. citizens Little, Cheryl Beckett, Brian Carderelli, Tom Grams, Glenn Lapp and Dan Terry.
“I know that the foreign workers of IAM were all committed Christians, and they felt this was the place where they needed to live out their life in practice by working with and for people who have very little access to anything we would call normal facilities,” said Frans. “The others were motivated by humanitarian motives. All of them in fact were one way or another committed to the Afghan people.”
The two Afghans were buried earlier this week. Little and Terry, who both had lived in the war-torn country for decades, will be buried in Afghanistan.
Despite the brutal murders, Frans said that as long as the Afghans and their government continue to welcome them, IAM will stay.
“We are here for the people, and as long as they want us to be here and the government in power gives us the opportunity to work here, we are their guests and we’ll stay, God willing,” he said.
On Sunday (Aug. 8), at his home church in Loudonville, New York, Dr. Tom Hale, a medical relief worker himself, praised the courage and sacrifice of the eight Christians who dedicated their lives to helping Afghans.
“Though this loss has been enormous, I want to state my conviction that this loss is not senseless; it is not a waste,” said Hale. “Remember this: those eight martyrs in Afghanistan did not lose their lives, they gave up their lives.”
Days before the team was found dead, Little’s wife wrote about their family’s motivation to stay in Afghanistan through “miserable” times. Libby Little described how in the 1970s during a citizens’ uprising they chose not to take shelter with other foreigners but to remain in their neighborhood.
“As the fighting worsened and streets were abandoned, our neighbors fed us fresh bread and sweet milk,” she wrote. “Some took turns guarding our gate, motioning angry mobs to ‘pass by’ our home. When the fighting ended, they referred to us as ‘the people who stayed.’
“May the fruitful door of opportunity to embrace suffering in service, or at least embrace those who are suffering, remain open for the sake of God’s kingdom,” she concluded.
Concern for Afghan Christians
Afghanistan’s population is estimated at 28 million. Among them are very few Christians. Afghan converts are not accepted by the predominantly Muslim society. In recent months experts have expressed concern over political threats against local Christians.
At the end of May, private Afghan TV station Noorin showed images of Afghan Christians being baptized and praying. Within days the subject of Afghans leaving Islam for Christianity became national news and ignited a heated debate in the Parliament and Senate. The government conducted formal investigations into activities of Christian aid agencies. In June IAM successfully passed an inspection by the Afghan Ministry of Economy.
In early June the deputy secretary of the Afghan Parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, called for the execution of converts, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“Those Afghans that appeared on this video film should be executed in public,” he said, according to the AFP. “The house should order the attorney general and the NDS (intelligence agency) to arrest these Afghans and execute them.”
Small protests against Christians ensued in Kabul and other towns, and two foreign aid groups were accused of proselytizing and their activities were suspended, news sources reported.
A source working with the Afghan church who requested anonymity said she was concerned that the murders of IAM workers last week might negatively affect Afghan Christians and Christian aid workers.
“The deaths have the potential to shake the local and foreign Christians and deeply intimidate them even further,” said the source. “Let’s pray that it will be an impact that strengthens the church there but that might take awhile.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Fearing local religious leader, area police refuse to file murder complaint.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 8 (CDN) — A Muslim mob in Jhelum, Pakistan murdered the wife and four children of a Christian last month, but local authorities are too afraid of the local Muslim leader to file charges, according to area Muslim and Christian sources.
Jamshed Masih, a police officer who was transferred 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Gujrat to Jhelum, Punjab Province, said a mob led by Muslim religious leader Maulana Mahfooz Khan killed his family on June 21 after Khan called him to the local mosque and told him to leave the predominantly Muslim colony. Jhelum is 85 kilometers (53 miles) south of Islamabad.
“You must leave with your family, no non-Muslim has ever been allowed to live in this colony – we want to keep our colony safe from scum,” Khan told Masih, the bereaved Christian told Compass.
Masih had moved to Mustafa Colony in Jhelum with his wife, two sons and two daughters and were living in a rented house. Masih said that a Muslim neighbor, Ali Murtaza, told him that area Muslims notified Khan, telling the religious leader, “We cannot allow these non-Muslims to live here, they will be a bad influence on our children.”
An anxious Masih told his wife Razia Jamshed about the local Muslim response, and they decided to bring their concern to the pastor of a local Presbyterian church, Saleem Mall.
“Pastor Saleem said, ‘I will also advise you to vacate the house, as it can be dangerous living there – these people can harm your family,” Masih said.
Masih’s neighbor, Murtaza, confirmed to Compass the response of the local Muslims and related incidents that led up to the murders. Murtaza told Compass that after Masih went to work at 7 a.m. on June 21, his children could be heard singing hymns before breakfast.
“Razia sent their eldest son to buy a packet of Surf [detergent], and he was singing a hymn on his way to buy the Surf,” Murtaza said.
Neighbors saw Masih’s s 11-year-old son come into the store, he said. The shopkeeper asked him if he was a Christian; the child responded that he was.
“The shopkeeper refused to give him the packet of Surf and spoke very harshly to him, ‘I don’t sell to any non-Muslim, you are not welcome here, don’t you dare ever come to my shop again,’” Murtaza said.
The boy went home, upset, and told his mother about the encounter; she grew worried and called her husband, saying, “Jamshed, please come home quickly, the kids and I are very worried, we must leave this house today,” Masih said.
His neighbor, Murtaza, said that shortly afterward some area residents came to the door with the Muslim religious leader, Khan.
“Your son has committed blasphemy against Muhammad, our beloved prophet – we can’t allow him to live, he should be punished,” Khan told Razia Masih, Murtaza said. “Razia got scared and said, ‘My son couldn’t do such a thing, he is only 11 years old.’”
Khan became furious and said, “Are we lying to you? You call us liars, how dare you insult us,” Murtaza said. “Someone from the crowd hit something hard on her head, and she started bleeding. The children started crying and shouted for help. Razia kept shouting for help, ‘Please have mercy on us, please let my husband come, then we can talk.’”
Jamshed Masih said his daughter telephoned police as the mob attacked his wife and children. He said he later learned that “the people kept shouting, ‘This family has committed blasphemy, they should be killed.”
Before police arrived, his family was murdered, he said.
Murtaza said Masih rushed home and was devastated to find the dead bodies of his wife and four children.
When Masih tried to file a complaint against Khan for the murder, Station House Officer (SHO) Ramzan Mumtaz refused to do so, according to Murtaza and Mall, the Presbyterian clergyman.
“He said, ‘Khan is an influential man, and he said your son has committed blasphemy – we cannot do anything against him,’” Mall said.
Murtaza added, “The SHO just said, ‘I am a poor man, I have a family, and I was pressured by higher authorities not to register the FIR [First Information Report] as Khan is a very influential man. I am sorry, I don’t have anything in my hands.’”
Contacted by Compass, SHO Mumtaz confirmed that he responded to the request to file the complaint against Khan in these exact words.
Masih has filed a complaint with the chief minister of Punjab Province begging him for justice, Mall told Compass.
“We condemn this brutal murder of innocent children in the name of Islam,” Mall said. “This has to stop now. We appeal to the government to let us live in peace.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Five men threatened to kill her unless her father allowed one to marry her.
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, June 16 (CDN) — Five Muslims here kidnapped and raped a Christian girl after threatening to kill her unless her father allowed one of them to marry her.
Lazarus Masih said one of his three daughters, 14, was kidnapped on May 29 by five men identified only as Guddu, Kamran, Waqas, Adil and Ali.
Police recovered her on June 6 in a raid on the home where she was being held, though the suspects escaped.
“They threatened that if I don’t get her married to Guddu, they would kill her,” Masih said. “One of them said, ‘We attended an Islamic religious convention, and the speaker said if you marry a non-Muslim or rape a non-Muslim girl, you will get 70 virgins in heaven.”
He said that when he and his wife returned from work at around 11 a.m. on May 29, their 14-year-old daughter was not at home; his other daughters had been at school and said they did not know where she had gone.
During the family’s search for her, they heard from Masih’s brother-in-law, Yousaf Masih, that he had seen five Muslim men follow her earlier that morning.
“In the morning around 7:30 a.m., I saw that [name withheld] and another girl were sitting in a rickshaw and five Muslim guys – Guddu, Kamran, Waqas, Adil and Ali – followed the rickshaw,” Yousaf Masih told the girl’s father.
Family members said the suspects took her to a house near Islamabad, where they gave her a drug that rendered her unconscious, and raped her. A medical report confirmed that she was given drugs and raped.
Lazarus Masih, who lives with his daughters and wife in Mohalla Raja Sultan, Rawalpindi, filed a First Information Report at the Waris Khan police station on June 1 against all five men. He said Guddu, Kamran and Waqas sell and use drugs.
He also contacted advocacy organization Ephlal Ministry, which along with representatives of Life for All and Peace Pakistan met with police chief Mazhar Hussain Minhas and demanded immediate action for the recovery of the girl.
“This is a very sad incident, and we will do whatever we can to recover the girl,” Hussain Minhas told them.
Devastated family members said the girl remained frightened and was not speaking to anyone.
“It is such a shame that the religious leaders teach inhuman acts,” said the Rev. John Gill of Shamsabad Catholic Church. “This incident has ruined the life of an innocent child.”
The family formerly belonged to the Catholic parish but now affiliates with a Protestant church, New Life Ministry in Rawalpindi.
Court suspends Mohammed Hegazy’s lawsuit pending outcome of separate case.
CAIRO, Egypt, May 17 (CDN) — An Egyptian convert to Christianity said he is devastated by a recent court decision to suspend a lawsuit he filed to change the religion on his identification card from Muslim to Christian.
The First District of the Court of the State Council on April 27 suspended Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy’s case until the Constitutional Court rules on a challenge to Article 47, a section of the civil code that in theory allows Egyptians to change the religion listed on their ID card.
Hegazy, 27, said the suspension endangers his children’s welfare and will force them to lead a double life indefinitely – at home they will be taught to live in accordance with the Bible, and outside it they will be taught to live according to the Quran.
If they ultimately decide to follow Jesus, Hegazy said, his children will be declared “apostates” and be persecuted the rest of their lives for “leaving Islam.” Hegazy, who has suffered severely after Egypt’s religious authorities declared him an apostate, including being imprisoned by State Security Investigations (SSI) several times, said he filed the case so his children would avoid the same fate.
“I didn’t want them to have to go through the same harassment and persecution that I went through,” he said. “My daughter won’t be able to go to school without constantly fearing for her safety. She might even be killed simply because she is my daughter.”
Hegazy is arguably the most well-known Muslim convert to Christianity in Egypt. He rose to national prominence in August 2007 when he became the first Muslim convert in Egypt to sue for the right to change the religious status on his identification card to “Christian.”
Hegazy said he became a Christian in 1998 after seeking God during a period of intense study of religion. In his final assessment, he said, he found that Islam was void of the love and forgiveness found in Christianity.
Not long after his conversion, Hegazy said, he was arrested by SSI agents who tortured him for three days. In 2001, the SSI arrested Hegazy for writing a book of poems critical of the agency, which has been accused of abusive practices to preserve the regime. In 2002, the SSI arrested Hegazy and held him for more than two months in a prison he compared to a “concentration camp.”
In addition to the government response to his conversion, Hegazy said his mother and father have attacked him repeatedly for becoming a Christian.
“In the culture in Egypt, for a person to change his religion, it’s a big deal because it’s a question of honor and tradition,” Hegazy said. “My dad and my mom took it in a really bad way and would beat me.”
Hegazy married another convert from Islam, Katarina, in 2005. Katarina also wants her ID changed but fears government reaction; there are numerous reports circulating among Egyptian Christians about female converts being arrested and tortured by the SSI or simply disappearing in Egypt’s prison system under Egypt’s Emergency Law. Renewed last week for another two years, the law grants the government broad powers of arbitrary incarceration that human rights groups have roundly criticized.
When Hegazy filed his suit in 2007, he and his wife were expecting their first child. Overnight, Egyptian media propelled him into the national limelight. And the persecution got much worse.
Two religious scholars from Al-Azhar University, one of the leading voices of Islamic thought in the Middle East, publicly declared it was legal to kill Muslims that convert to Christianity. In one incident, extremists surrounded a home where Hegazy had once lived and stayed there for several days. In another incident, a group of men ransacked and set fire to Hegazy’s apartment while he was away.
Throughout his legal proceedings, several of Hegazy’s attorney’s have dropped out of the case after receiving death threats, being sued or being arrested. On Jan. 28, 2009, a court ruled that Muslims were forbidden to convert to another religion and ordered Hegazy to pay the costs of hearing his case. He appealed.
Hegazy lives in hiding. Unable to work, the former journalist is supported by friends and other Christians. Last month’s ruling will likely delay a decision in Hegazy’s case for several years and keep him and his family in limbo.
“The court is using this decision as a way of delaying having to make an ultimate decision,” Hegazy said.
The couple’s first child, Mariam, is now 2 years old, and their second child, Yousef, is 3 months old. Because Hegazy and his wife are unable to change their ID to reflect their true faith, the government lists both of their children as Muslims. If they choose to become Christians, they will be considered apostates who, in accordance with longstanding interpretation of the guiding scriptures of Islam, must be killed by faithful Muslims.
“It makes me feel like religion in Egypt isn’t something you can choose by your own free will; it’s something that you are forced to be, and nobody has a choice to choose what their religion is,” Hegazy said. “It bothers me a lot because my kids know they are being brought up as Christians in their home and their parents are Christians, but they can’t practice their religion outside the house.”
Every Egyptian citizen age 16 or older must carry a state-issued ID card that is required for opening a bank account, enrolling children in school and for starting a business, among other activities. Religious identity also determines to which civil or family court one is subject.
Of primary importance to Hegazy is that the religion indicated on the ID card determines what religious education classes a child is required to take in school.
There is a stark contrast in Egypt between the treatment of Christians who want to change the religious affiliation on their ID card to Islam and Muslims who want to change their affiliation to Christianity. Generally speaking, because Muslims consider the preaching of Muhammad to be the last of three revelations from God to man, in practice “freedom of religion” in Egypt means only the freedom to convert to Islam.
Article 47 of Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the constitution also states that Islam is the official religion of Egypt. Article 2 of the constitution states that Islamic law, or sharia, is “the principle source of legislation” in Egypt.
The difference between the treatment of converts to Christianity and converts to Islam is illustrated in the case of Samy Aziz Fahmy. The week before the court postponed Hegazy’s case, Fahmy, a Coptic Christian from Saayda village, changed his legal status to Islam. He received his ID card reflecting his new religion on the same day he applied for it – on the day he turned 18, the legal age for conversion.
“I think it’s very weird and not fair that when Christians want to convert to Islam there’s no problem, their papers go through and there’s no discrimination against them,” Hegazy said. “But when Muslims want to convert to Christianity, all of the sudden it’s a big deal.”
Hegazy is not alone in his legal battles. After he filed his case, other Muslim converts sought court action to change their IDs. Like Hegazy, most are in hiding of some sort. Hegazy’s lead attorney, Ashraf Edward, said he is working on several ID cases. He estimates there are more than 4 million converts to Christianity who want to change the religion listed on their ID, though the basis for that figure is unclear.
“There are a lot of people who want to change their ID, but they’re afraid of turning it into a court case because they don’t want to be persecuted,” Edward said.
Human rights groups and government agencies around the world have condemned Egypt for its record on religious freedom. In a report issued earlier this month, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom outlined Egypt’s problems with identification cards and the treatment of converts from Islam, taking note of Hegazy’s case.
“The Egyptian government generally does not recognize conversions of Muslims to other religions,” the report states. “Egyptian courts also have refused to allow Muslims who convert to Christianity to change their identity cards to reflect their conversions. In the first such case, brought by Muhammad Hegazy, a lower court ruled in January 2008 that Muslims are forbidden from converting away from Islam based on principles of Islamic law. The court also stated that such conversion would constitute a disparagement of the official state religion and an enticement for other Muslims to convert. Hegazy, who has been subjected to death threats and is currently in hiding, has appealed the ruling.”
The report cited numerous other problem areas in regard to freedom of worship in Egypt, and the country remained on USCIRF’s Watch List for 2010. Egypt has been on the list since 2002. Among the changes USCIRF said are necessary in Egypt is how religion is reported on Egypt’s national ID card.
The commission said Egypt must “ensure that every Egyptian is protected against discrimination in social, labor, and other rights by modifying the national identity card, either to omit mention of religious affiliation or make optional any mention of religious affiliation.”
Report from Compass Direct News