Anti-Christian Sentiment Heats Up

Terrorist threat in Iraq emerges at importune moment for Copts.

CAIRO, Egypt, November 22 (CDN) — As bombings and other attacks continue against Christians in Iraq, Christians in Egypt have gathered to pray and plan for their own safety.

When a group of Islamic extremists on Oct. 31 burst into Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad during evening mass and began spraying the sanctuary with gunfire, the militant organization that took responsibility said Christians in Egypt also would be targeted if its demands were not met. Taking more than 100 congregants hostage, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) called a television station and stated that the assault came in response to the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt allegedly holding two Coptic women against their will who, the ISI and some others believe, converted to Islam.

The group issued a 48-hour deadline for the release of the women, and when the deadline passed it issued a statement that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.” The statement later added ominously, “We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood.”

In the attack and rescue attempt that followed, 58 people were reportedly killed. A week and a half later, Islamic extremists killed four people in a series of coordinated attacks against Christians in Baghdad and its surrounding suburbs. The attackers launched mortar rounds and planted makeshift bombs outside Christian homes and one church. At least one attack was made against the family members of one of the victims of the original attack.

On Nov. 15, gunmen entered two Christian homes in Mosul and killed two men in the house. The next day, a Christian and his 6-year-old daughter were killed in a car bombing. At the same time, another bomb exploded outside the home of a Christian, damaging the house but leaving the residents uninjured, according to CNN.

The threats against Christians caused a flurry of activity at churches in Egypt. A 35-year-old Protestant who declined to give her name said Christians in Cairo have unified in prayer meetings about the threats. An SMS text message was sent out through prayer networks asking people to meet, she said.

“I know people are praying now,” she said. “We have times for our people to pray, so all of us are praying.”

Security has increased at churches throughout Egypt. In Cairo, where the presence of white-uniformed security police is ubiquitous, the number of uniformed and plain-clothes officers has doubled at churches. High-ranking police officers shuffle from one house of worship to another monitoring subordinates and enforcing new security rules. At times, parking on the same side of the street as a church building, or even driving by one, has been forbidden.

On Nov. 8, leaders from the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches gathered to discuss how to improve security at churches. According to the leaders of several churches, the government asked pastors to cancel unessential large-scale public meetings. Pope Shenouda III canceled a celebration to commemorate the 39th anniversary of his installment as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Guests at a recent outdoor Christmas bazaar and a subsequent festival at the All-Saints Cathedral in Zamalek
were greeted with pat-downs, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Some church leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security improvements are haphazard, while others say they are genuine efforts to ensure the safety of Christians.

Most Christians in Cairo avoided answering any questions about the attacks in Iraq or the threats made against Christians in Egypt. But Deliah el-Sowkary, a Coptic Orthodox woman in her 20s, said she hoped no attacks would happen in her country. Noting the security present at all churches, still she said she is not that worried.

“I think it’s different in Egypt than in Baghdad, it’s more safe here,” El-Sowkary said.

Almost a week after the bombings, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued a statement through the state-run MENA news agency that the Copts would be protected from attacks.

“The president affirmed his extensive solicitude for the protection of the nation’s sons, Muslims and Copts, from the forces of terrorism and extremism,” the agency stated.


Pressure Cooker

The security concerns came against a backdrop of heightened tensions between the Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority over the past few months, with weeks of protests against Christians in general and against Shenouda specifically. The protests, held mostly in Alexandria, ended two weeks ago.

The tension started after the wife of a Coptic priest, Camilia Zakher, disappeared in July. According to government sources and published media reports, Zakher left her home after a heated argument with her husband. But Coptic protestors, who started gathering to protest at churches after Zakher disappeared, claimed she had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.

Soon after, Egypt’s State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers found her at the home of a friend. Despite stating she had left of her own free will, authorities brought Zakher back to her husband. Since then, Zakher has been in seclusion. It is unclear where she is or if she remains there of her own free will.

Unconfirmed rumors began spreading that Zakher had converted to Islam and was being held against her will to force her to return to Christianity. Protests outside mosques after Friday prayers became weekly events. Protestors produced a photo of unknown origin of a woman in Islamic covering whom they claimed was Zakher. In response, Coptic authorities released a video in which the priest’s wife stated that she wasn’t a Muslim nor ever had been.

Another rumor began circulating that Zakher went to Al-Azhar University, one of the primary centers of Islamic learning in the world, to convert to Islam. But Al-Azhar, located in Cairo, released a statement that no such thing ever happened.

No independent media interviews of Zakher have taken place because, according to the Coptic Church, the SSI has ordered church officials not to allow public access to her. Along with their accusations about Zakher, protestors also claimed, without evidence, that a similar thing happened in 2004 to Wafa Constantine, also the wife of a Coptic Orthodox priest. Constantine was the second woman the ISI demanded the Copts “release.” Like Zakher, her location is not public knowledge.

The month after the Zakher incident, Egyptian media reported in error that the SSI had seized a ship from Israel laden with explosives headed for the son of an official of the Coptic Orthodox church. The ship was later found to be carrying fireworks, but another set of Islamic leaders, led in part by Nabih Al-Wahsh, an attorney famous for filing lawsuits designed to damage the church, declared without any evidence that Copts were allied with the Israelis and stockpiling weapons in the basements
of their churches with plans to overthrow the Muslim majority.

The claims were echoed on Al-Jazeera by Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-’Awa, the former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and in a statement issued by the Front of Religious Scholars, a group of academics affiliated with Al-Azhar University.

There was no time for tensions to cool after Al-’Awa and the others leveled their allegations. The next month, Bishop Anba Bishoy, the secretary of the Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masri Al-Yawm that Muslims were “guests” in Egypt, inflaming a Muslim population already up in arms.

“The Copts are the root of the land,” the bishop said. “We love the guests who came and settled in our land, and regard them as brothers, but they want to control even our churches? I reject anything that harms the Muslims, but as Christians we will do everything, even die as martyrs, if someone tries to harm our Christian mission.”

Around the same time, the Front of Religious Scholars called for a complete boycott of Christians in Egypt. The group called Christians “immoral,” labeled them “terrorists” and said Muslims should not patronize their businesses or even say “hello” to them.

The statement by the scholars was followed by a media leak about a lecture Bishoy was scheduled to give at a conference for Orthodox clergy. In his presentation, Bishoy planned on questioning the authorship of a verse in the Quran that calls Christians “blasphemers.” Muslims believe that an angel revealed the Quran to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, who transmitted it word-by-word to his followers. Bishoy contended there was a possibility the verse in question was added later.

The mosque protests became even more virulent, and the conference was abruptly cancelled. Bishoy was forced to issue an apology, saying he never meant to cast doubt on Islam and called Muslims “partners” with the Copts in Egypt. Shenouda also issued an apology on national television. By comparison, an Islamic publishing house that rewrote and then issued what it termed the “true Bible” caused barely a stir.

Al-’Awa then blamed the deteriorating state of Muslim-Christian relations on Shenouda and Bishoy. He accused the Coptic Orthodox Church of exploiting the government’s “weak stance” toward it and “incarcerating anyone [who] is not to its liking.”

The Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research issued a statement that declared, “Egypt is a Muslim state.” The statement further went on to read that the Christians’ rights were contingent on their acceptance of the “Islamic identity” of Egypt. The statement was endorsed by Ali Gum’a, the mufti of Egypt.

The statement also referenced an agreement made between Muhammad and a community of Egyptian Christians in the seventh century as the guiding document on how Christians should be governed in a Muslim-dominated state. If ever codified into Egyptian law as many Muslims in Egypt desire, it would legally cement the status of Christians in the country as second-class citizens.

In 639, seven years after Muhammad died, Muslim armies rode across from Syria and Palestine and invaded Egypt, then controlled by the Byzantines. At first the Muslims, then a new but well-armed minority within Egypt, treated the conquered Christians relatively well by seventh century standards. But within a generation, they began the Islamization of the country, demanding all official business be conducted in Arabic, the language of the Quran, and Coptic and Jewish residents were forced to pay special taxes and obey rules designed to reaffirm their second-class status.

In the centuries since then, the treatment of Christians in Egypt has ebbed and flowed depending on the whim of those in power. After the coup of 1952, in which a group of men known as the Free Officers’ Movement took power from a European-backed monarch, Copts have seen their treatment decline.

In 1971, then-President Anwar Sadat introduced a new constitution designating Islamic law as “a principle source of legislation” in Egypt. In 1980, the National Assembly made Islam the official religion of the state.

Estimates of the Coptic population range from 7 to 12 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people. They are accepted by some in Egypt and openly discriminated against by others. Violent attacks against Christians – which the government does little to prevent – accentuate tensions.

The state also routinely harasses converts to Christianity from Islam. Many have to live in some sort of hiding.

The Protestant woman said she was not sure whether attacks would happen in response to the threats, but whatever happens, she said she expects that Christians in Egypt will continue to endure persecution.

“According to the Bible, we know this is going to happen,” she said. “This is not new or novel for us. The Bible said that we will be persecuted. It is expected.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Iraqis Mourn Victims of Massive Attack on Church

Islamic extremist assault, security force operation leave at least 58 dead.

ISTANBUL, November 2 (CDN) — Amid questions about lax security, mourners gathered in Iraq today to bury the victims of Sunday’s (Oct. 31) Islamic extremist assault on a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad, one of the bloodiest attacks on the country’s dwindling Christian community.

Seven or eight Islamic militants stormed into Our Lady of Salvation church during evening mass after detonating bombs in the neighborhood, gunning down two policemen at the stock exchange across the street, and blowing up their own car, according to The Associated Press (AP). More than 100 people were reportedly attending mass.

A militant organization called the Islamic State of Iraq, which has links to al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, claimed responsibility for the attack. The militants sprayed the sanctuary with bullets and ordered a priest to call the Vatican to demand the release of Muslim women whom they claimed were held hostage by the Coptic Church in Egypt, according to the AP. The militants also reportedly demanded the release of al Qaeda prisoners.

“It appears to be a well-planned and strategic attack aiming at the church,” said a local source for ministry organization Open Doors.

About four hours after the siege, Iraqi security forces launched an assault on the church building, and the Islamic assailants blew themselves up. It was unclear how many of the 58 people dead had been killed by Iraqi security personnel, but the militants reportedly began killing hostages when the security force assault began. All who did not die from gunshots and blasts were wounded.

The dead included 12 policemen, three priests and five bystanders from the car bombing and other blasts outside the church. The Open Doors source reported that the priests killed were the Rev. Saad Abdal Tha’ir, the Rev. Waseem Tabeeh and the Rev. Raphael Qatin, with the latter not succumbing until he had been taken to a hospital.

Bishop Georges Casmoussa told Compass that today Iraqi Christians not only mourned lost brothers and sisters but were tempted to lose hope.

“It’s a personal loss and a Christian loss,” said Casmoussa. “It’s not just people they kill. They also kill hope. We want to look at the future. They want to kill the Christian presence here, where we have so much history.”

Casmoussa, who knew the priests who died, said that this attack will surely drive more Christians away from the country or to Kurdish administrated northern Iraq.

“Those who are wounded know that it is by the grace of God they are alive, but some of them don’t know exactly what happened,” said Casmoussa. “There is one hurt man who doesn’t know if his son is still alive. This is the drama. There are families that lost two and three members. Do I have the right to tell them to not leave?”

The attack was the deadliest one against the country’s Christians since Islamic extremists began targeting them in 2003.

“It was the hardest hit against the Christians in Iraq,” said Casmoussa, noting that no single act of violence had led to more casualties among Christians. “We never had such an attack against a church or Christian community.”

Memorials were held today in Baghdad, Mosul and surrounding towns, said Casmoussa, who attended the funeral of 13 deceased Christians including the dead priests.

“At the funeral there was the Shiite leader, the official spokesperson of the government ministers,” Casmoussa said. “All the discussion was flippant – ‘We are with you, we are all suffering,’ etcetera, but we have demanded a serious investigation. We can’t count on good words anymore. It’s all air. We’ve heard enough.”

The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana of the Church of the East told Compass that Iraqi Christians have been systematically driven out over the last five years. He said this attack came as no surprise to him.

“I’m not surprised, in that this is not the first time,” said Youkhana. “In the last five years, there has been a systematic terrorist campaign to kick out the Christians from the country. [They are saying] you are not accepted in this country. Christians should leave this country.”

Youkhana said that in the same way that the Jewish community has disappeared from Iraq, the Iraqi Christians, or Medians as they are called, “are in their last stage of existence” in Iraq.

The Iraqi government is to blame due to its lax security measures, Youkhana said.

“I’m ashamed of the minister of defense, who came on TV and said it was a successful and professional operation – 50 percent of the [congregation] was massacred,” said Youkhana of the assault on the Islamic terrorists by Iraqi security forces.

He said that in order for Christians to have any hope of staying in Iraq, the government must come up with a political solution and set up an independent administrative area, like that of the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq.

“Just now I was watching on TV the coverage of the funeral,” Youkhana said. “All the politicians are there to condemn the act. So what? Is the condemnation enough to give confidence to the people? No!”

It is estimated that more than 50 percent of Iraq’s Christian community has fled the country since 2003. There are nearly 600,000 Christians left in Iraq.

“More people will leave, and this is the intention of the terrorists: to claim Iraq as a pure Islamic state,” said Youkhana. “Our people are so peaceful and weak; they cannot confront the terrorists. So they are fleeing out of the country and to the north. This is why we say there should be political recognition.”

Five suspects were arrested in connection with the attack – some of them were not Iraqi, and today an Iraqi police commander was detained for questioning in connection to the attack, according to the AP.

“We can’t make political demands,” said Casmoussa. “We are making a civic and humanitarian demand: That we can live in peace.”

Following the funerals today, a series of at least 13 bombings and mortar strikes in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad reportedly killed 76 people and wounded nearly 200.

Report from Compass Direct News

Russian Patriarch unveils Kremlin icon hidden since 1917

A fresco of Christ on the Kremlin Wall in Moscow rediscovered after being plastered over during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution has been presented in a ceremony attended by Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, reports Ecumenical News International.

"The history of these icons is a symbol of what happened with our people in the 20th century," said Kirill at the 28 August ceremony. "It was claimed that true goals and values and genuine shrines were destroyed, and that faith had disappeared from the lives of our people."

The fresco of Christ is located over the Spasskaya, or Saviour, tower of the Kremlin, near St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. Experts say it dates to the middle or second half of the 17th century.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Alleged Bomber of Christian Boy in Israel to Stand Trial

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

Prospects of Religious Freedom Appear Grim in Islamic Maldives

Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.

MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”

After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.

This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.

Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.

Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.

While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.

In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.

According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.

“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”

The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.

“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”

The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”

“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.


Religion Excluded from Rights

The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.

“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”

Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”

He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.

“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”

Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”

Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.

“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”

Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.


Politics of Religion

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.

The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.

In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.

“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.

That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.

When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.

Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.

Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.

To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.

Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.


Growing Extremism

Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.

Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”

Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”

Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”

As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.

How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?

“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.

Report from Compass Direct News


12 Christians killed, 20 churches burned in Borno rioting prompted by extremist group.

LAGOS, Nigeria, Aug. 7 (Compass Direct News) – With 12 Christians, including three pastors, confirmed killed in rioting ignited by an Islamic sect opposed to Western education, the Christian community in northern Nigeria’s Borno state is still counting its losses.

The rioting instigated by an Islamic extremist sect known as Boko Haram, which initially attacked police and government bases, left hundreds of people dead and large property losses. Sharia (Islamic law) is already in force for Muslims in 12 northern states, but the sect is fighting to have it enforced more broadly in those states and to impose it throughout Nigeria.

“We are still taking inventory of how the crisis affected our members, but so far we have confirmed some of the Christians killed and churches burnt,” Samuel Salifu, national secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), told Compass.

Rampaging members of the sect burned 20 churches before police captured and killed Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Police say Yusuf was killed “while trying to escape,” but a federal government panel is investigating allegations that security agents executed him after arresting him alive in his hideout.

The chairman of the Borno state chapter of CAN, the Rev. Yuguda Zubabai Ndurvuwa, said many Christians abducted by Boko Haram extremists were yet to be found. He noted that the Christian community usually has been hardest hit in religious uprisings in Borno and other northern states. Violence started on July 26, when armed sect members attacked a police station in Bauchi state that set off a firestorm of violence that spread to the northern states of Borno, Kano and Yobe.

Those killed in Borno include Pastor Sabo Yakubu of Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN), the Rev. Sylvester Akpan of National Evangelical Mission and the Rev. George Orji of Good News of Christ Church International, Inc.

Church buildings burned in Borno include five branches of the COCIN denomination, two Catholic churches, two Deeper Life Church buildings, two EYN (Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) buildings, and buildings of the National Evangelical Mission, Celestial Church of Christ, Elijah Apostolic Church, The Lord’s Chosen Charismatic Revival Ministries, Assemblies of God Church, Redeemed Christian Church of God, Christ for All Nations, Baptist Church and Anglican Church, all in different parts of the state.

Nigeria has almost equal numbers of Christians and Muslims, with the north dominated by Muslims and the south largely Christian. Northern Nigeria has a history of religious crisis with heavy casualties among Christians.

A Maiduguri, Borno-based journalist, Abiodun Joseph, said members of the sect kidnapped his two sons after he and his family narrowly escaped being lynched by the sect members.

“They stopped us while leaving the estate where I live, which is close to their headquarters, and threatened to shoot myself and my wife if we resisted the abduction of my two sons,” Joseph told Compass. He found his sons two days later.

“It was a very harrowing experience as we were not sure what would happen to them, but we thank God that they were not killed like others,” Joseph added.

Many other abducted Christians, he said, were killed by rioters for refusing to renounce their faith.

Facing Loss

With calm restored, Pastor Enouch Atiyaye, chaplain of the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital, said Christians in Borno who were forced to abandon their homes have been returning to “face the loss of their family members and the burning of their churches and homes.”

“There is a general feeling of despair and dejection among Christians with a high degree of uncertainty, since we don’t know what can happen next,” Atiyaye told Compass. “The fear is that the Boko Haram group has many members who have entrenched themselves in the state over the years. They disappeared during the crisis and can regroup to fight back if necessary security measures are not in place.”

Based on the attack on Christians during the Boko Haram uprising and past experiences, CAN’s Salifu said the association has lost confidence in the ability of the government to provide security for the lives and property of its members.

“If the government continues the way it has been doing, the association would have to give conditions for the co-existence of the various groups in the country” Salifu said at a press conference in Abuja, the country’s capital, on Monday (Aug. 3).

Accusing Borno Gov. Ali Modu Sheriff of complicity in the emergence of the Boko Haram group, Salifu said Christians were apprehensive that there are dangers beyond what was apparent in the sect’s uprising.

“We have no doubt in our minds that they would have perceived Christianity as a Western religion, which to them is also haraam [sin] which must also be eradicated,” he said.

At the press conference the Rev. Ladi Thompson, international coordinator of Macedonian Initiatives, a Christian Non-Governmental Organization, accused the government of ignoring warnings by Christian leaders on Boko Haram activities, which he said could have been nipped much earlier.

The governor’s press director, Usman Ciroma, dismissed CAN’s claim of complicity by Gov. Sheriff, saying that it was preposterous and laughable that the tragedy that befell the state could be trivialized in that way.

“Which politician will be so suicidal as to set a group to kill his own people?” Ciroma reportedly said.

The governor, who denied any relationship with the Islamic sect, met with Christian leaders in Borno state for the first time on Wednesday (Aug. 5), during which he disclosed plans to regulate preaching by religious leaders. For two years, according to news reports, attempts by Christian leaders to meet the governor over the plight of Christians in the state had been rebuffed.

“Government officials at the meeting tried to claim that Muslims were not more affected by the crisis, but the there is no indication that any mosque was burnt or any imam killed,” said a Christian leader at the meeting who requested anonymity.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Alarmed by threatening strangers, wife and children of William Reyes leave Maicao.

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, June 24 (Compass Direct News) – The wife and children of pastor William Reyes, who was kidnapped last September in Colombia and is still missing, have moved from their home to another city due to threatening strangers presumably linked to his kidnappers.

Compass learned that Idia Miranda Reyes, her son William, 19, and daughters Luz Nelly, 17, and Estefania, 9, suddenly left their home in Maicao in the department (state) of La Guajira two months ago and moved to an undisclosed location in the country.

The Rev. William Reyes disappeared on Sept. 25, 2008, en route to Maicao from the neighboring city of Valledupar. Since March 2008, the pastor of Light and Truth Inter-American Church and active member of the Fraternity of Evangelical Pastors of Maicao, had been receiving extortion threats from illegal armed groups operating in the La Guajira peninsula.

Family members have not heard from Pastor Reyes since, nor have his abductors contacted the family to demand ransom.

Two incidents earlier this year alerted his wife that she and her children were in danger from the kidnappers. On Jan. 15, an unidentified man appeared at the Inter-American Church in Maicao and asked for Idia Miranda Reyes. When he was told she was not there, the man asked for her address and cell phone number, which church workers refused to give him.

Before he left, the man said testily, “It is in [her] best interest to get in touch with me, than for me to have to find her.”

Six days later, Luz Nelly Reyes was approached by a stranger on the street (the family believes it was the same man), who told her that if she wanted to see her father again, she should come with him. The girl declined the invitation. When he attempted to grab her by the arm, Luz Nelly fled.

“I have not reported this to police, because I’m afraid,” her mother told Compass after the incident. “They could do something to me.”

Through sobs she added, “We never conceived of this happening to us. I just wish they would tell us if they have him or not.”

Idia Miranda Reyes waited to leave Maicao until Luz Nelly completed her senior year in high school; the 17-year-old graduated on March 28. According to sources, the Inter-American church is contributing a modest living allowance to the Reyes family.

Reyes is not alone in her fears; Colombia suffers the highest incidence of kidnapping in the Western Hemisphere and a homicide rate 11 times greater than in the United States.

Due to general lawlessness, Colombians often face harassment from the same criminals who kidnap or murder loved ones. Violent crime is so common in the country that half of the felonies are not reported to police, and only one in nine makes the newspapers.

Another Maicao kidnapping in February underscores the problem. Armed men abducted a woman from a church just a few blocks from the Light and Truth church – while worship was in progress. The pastor of that church later refused to disclose the victim’s identity or discuss the circumstances of her disappearance, citing concerns for the safety of his congregation.

Evangelical Christians are not always passive victims of crime, however. Justapaz, a Mennonite Church-affiliated organization based in Bogotá, and The Commission for Restoration, Life and Peace of the Evangelical Council of Churches of Colombia (CEDECOL) have organized an international prayer and action campaign in response to the Reyes family crisis.

The campaign mobilized concerned citizens to petition the office of Attorney General Dr. Mario Iguarán, asking that authorities conduct a thorough investigation into Pastor Reyes’ disappearance and report their findings to Commission Coordinator Ricardo Esquivia and Jenny Neme, director of Justapaz.

“Despite hundreds of letters from church members in the United States, Canada and across Europe, and repeated attempts to get a response from the Colombian Attorney General´s Office, we have yet to receive any information from them regarding progress in the case,” said Michael Joseph, who coordinates the Reyes case on behalf of CEDECOL and Justapaz. “We’re doing our best to make sure Pastor Reyes’ case is not forgotten.”

The Reyes family joins other “internal refugees” who live as exiles in their own country. Unchecked political and social violence have forced innocent victims – many of them widows and children – to abruptly abandon homes and careers. They must take up life in crowded, far-off cities in order to protect themselves and their children from further attack.

According to estimates, Colombia now has 3 million internal refugees, the second largest population of displaced persons in the world after Sudan.

Report from Compass Direct News


Foreign Ministry spokesman asserts ‘full religious freedom’ despite arrests, torture.

DUBLIN, May 8 (Compass Direct News) – A U.S. government body cited increased harassment, imprisonment and torture of members of unregistered religious groups in China last year, which a Chinese official roundly denied.

After the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last week recommended China remain on the U.S. Department of State’s list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said USCIRF’s report was “an attempt to smear China.”

“It is a fact that the Chinese government protects its citizens’ freedom of religious belief according to law, and every ethnic group in any part of China enjoys full religious freedom,” Ma Zhaoxu, said Tuesday (May 5) in a statement quoted by the Chinese daily Xinhua.

The commission acknowledged that “the freedom to participate in officially-sanctioned religious activity increased in many areas of the country over the past year,” but noted that abuses of members of unregistered religious groups had extended to a small handful of lawyers who dared to defend them.

In at least 17 provinces, some 764 Protestant leaders and house church members were arrested in the past year, 35 of whom were sentenced to prison for a year or more, the report said. According to the state department, the total number of Protestant house church members and “underground” Catholics arrested in the past year may be in the thousands.

Religious freedom also deteriorated significantly in Uyghur Muslim and Tibetan Buddhist regions over the past year, according to the commission report. Officials have urged “stronger management” of Protestant and Catholic activity in Xinjiang, while new laws have allowed greater control over Muslim and Buddhist community leaders in both regions.

Police detained Chinese house church leader Lou Yuanqi in Xinjiang province in May 2008, charging him with “inciting separatism” and “utilizing superstition to undermine the law.” A local court refused to accept his case due to insufficient evidence, but Yuanqi remained in detention until his release on bail on April 24.

Officials further restricted religious freedom in the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet during the period USCIRF covered for the report, May 2008 through April 2009. Ismail Tiliwaldi, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), urged local police and religious affairs officials to “exercise stronger management” over Protestantism and Catholicism and strictly guard against foreign infiltration and sabotage, the commission stated.

On Jan. 1, 2008, new laws gave officials in both regions greater powers to monitor the training, assembly, selection and speeches of community religious leaders. More recently, officials have enforced bans on religious education; authorities in Tibet have warned parents to keep children away from religious ceremonies, while Xinjiang officials in February and March began a campaign to halt illegal religious schools and arrest anyone engaged in “cross-village worship.”

The campaigns in Xinjiang have largely targeted Muslims, but Uyghur Christians are also affected. Unable to freely attend government-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) Protestant churches, they continue to meet in small groups in private homes, risking arrest and detention in labor camps.

House church Christian Alimjan Yimit (Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese) remains in arbitrary detention awaiting trial, 15 months after his arrest. Officials initially closed the foreign-owned business Alimjan worked for in September 2007 and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity.” He was then detained in January 2008 on charges of endangering state security and was formally arrested on Feb. 20, 2008 on charges of “inciting secession” and leaking state secrets.

Court officials returned Alimjan’s case to state prosecutors in May 2008, citing lack of evidence. The case was returned to court for consideration last October.

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

Officials also continued tight surveillance of underground Catholic groups across China last year, according to USCIRF.

The official Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) insists on selecting and ordaining clergy and forbids clergy or CPA members to have contact with the Vatican or other foreign Catholic organizations, USCIRF stated. The Vatican, however, has secretly ordained as many as 90 percent of CPA bishops and priests, the commission reported.

China watchers say pressure will increase rather than decrease as China anticipates several significant political anniversaries later this year.

Troubled Rights Advocates

The crackdown has extended to lawyers, particularly those handling religious rights cases. In March, officials revoked the license of Beijing’s Yitong Law Firm; the firm’s lawyers had been handling cases for unregistered house church Christians.

Christian attorney Gao Zhisheng, known for defending unregistered Protestant Christians and Falun Gong members, disappeared in February. Immediately prior to his disappearance, Gao had published a report of torture endured during a September 2007 interrogation. At press time his whereabouts remained unknown. (See “Action Urged for Missing Rights Activist,” March 25.)

Court officials in November 2007 sentenced Gao’s legal partner, Yang Maodong, to five years in prison for “illegal business practices.” Prison guards have reportedly tortured Yang with electric shock batons and other implements.

Earlier, in September 2007, officials beat prominent religious freedom advocate and attorney Li Heping with electric batons and ordered him to stop practicing law. When he refused, officials revoked his license.

Given these developments, the commission has urged the U.S. government to include religious freedom concerns in its discussions with the Chinese government.

Under terms of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, U.S. government officials are obliged to address religious rights concerns with the government of any country designated as a Country of Particular Concern.

Report from Compass Direct News