Two weeks after release, Christian vanishes while in police custody.
DUBLIN, May 7 (CDN) — Gao Zhisheng, a Christian human rights lawyer released by Chinese officials on April 6 and missing again since April 20, is “definitely in the hands of Chinese security forces,” Bob Fu of the China Aid Association (CAA) told Compass.
“We’ve heard the reports and we’re investigating this closely,” Fu said. “Right now nobody has been able to locate him. The Chinese security forces need to come up with an explanation.”
Gao, initially seized from his home in Shaanxi Province on Feb. 4, 2009 and held incommunicado by security officials for 13 months, was permitted to phone family members and colleagues in late March before officials finally returned him to his Beijing apartment on April 6.
In a press conference held in a Beijing teahouse the day after his return, Gao said he wanted to be reunited with his family, who fled to the United States in January 2009, and he claimed he no longer had the strength to continue his legal work. He also said he could not comment on the treatment he received while in captivity.
Gao also told a reporter from the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that he expected to travel to Urumqi within days of his release to visit his in-laws.
Witnesses saw Gao leaving his apartment sometime between April 9 and 12 and getting into a vehicle parked outside his building, SCMP reported on April 30. Gao’s father-in-law reportedly confirmed that Gao arrived at his home with an escort of four police officers but spent just one night there before police took him away again.
Gao phoned his father-in-law shortly before he was due to board a flight back to Beijing on April 20. He promised to call again after returning home but failed to do so, according to the SCMP report.
Fu said he believes that international pressure forced authorities to allow Gao a brief re-appearance to prove that he was alive before officials seized him again to prevent information leaking out about his experiences over the past year.
During a previous detention in 2007, Gao’s captors brutally tortured him and threatened him with death if he spoke about his treatment. Gao later described the torture in an open letter published by CAA in 2009.
Gao came to the attention of authorities early last decade when he began to investigate the persecution of house church Christians and Falun Gong members. In 2005 he wrote a series of open letters to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao accusing the government of torturing Falun Gong members.
When the letters appeared, authorities revoked Gao’s law license and shut down his law firm, sources told CAA.
He was given a suspended three-year jail sentence in December 2006, following a confession that Gao later claimed was made under extreme duress, including torture and threats against his wife and children. Gao was then confined to his Beijing apartment under constant surveillance – forbidden to leave his home, use his phone or computer or otherwise communicate with the outside world, according to a report by The New York Times.
A self-taught lawyer and a Communist Party member until 2005, Gao was once recognized by the Ministry of Justice as one of the mainland’s top 10 lawyers for his pro bono work on human rights cases, according to SCMP.
Report from Compass Direct News
ISTANBUL, June 16 (Compass Direct News) – Egyptian news sources report security forces have wrongly detained two Christians for nearly a month as part of a ruse to cast a Muslim attack on Copts as “sectarian violence.”
Violence broke out last month in the village of Toma, near El-Mahalla El-Kubra in the middle of the Nile Delta, when local Muslims attacked Copts who had rescued Nermeen Mitry, 16; Muslims had kidnapped the Coptic girl and tried to convert her to Islam, according to Assyrian International News Agency (AINA).
Some 150 Muslims attacked five of Mitry’s family members as they drove home to their village following her rescue after the May 21 kidnapping. Police arrested 14 Muslims and 11 Copts. In the course of the violence, a carton recycling warehouse owned by her father was burned down.
Most of the perpetrators have been released, Copts said, while two Muslims and two randomly selected Copts are still detained – a ruse to disguise the one-sided nature of the attack and to keep both sides from causing further disturbances. Hany Haziz, a local watchmaker who participated in reconciliation meetings, asserted that the Minister of Interior ordered the detentions for 45 days to create a false sense of symmetrical “community strife,” according to Coptic News Bulletin.
Coptic activists concurred that the state uses arrests of Copts when Muslims instigate sectarian violence to create a false sense of equivalence.
“This was a balance game; the security services play this every single instance,” said Helmy Guirguis, president of the U.K. Coptic Association. “They must take an equal number, and sometimes they snatch people on the street.”
International and Egyptian news agencies quoted state security forces saying that Mitry was engaged to local Muslim youth Hossam Hamouda, and that their relationship resulted in fierce clashes in the village of 2,000 people.
In addition, a report on Thursday (June 11) from the Egyptian Association for Democracy included quotes from local Muslims who repeated the statements of state security forces. But the authors of the report were not allowed to interview Mitry’s sister.
Some Copts, however, said that Muslim residents of Toma were angry that the kidnapping and attempted forcible conversion of Mitry had failed, as the perpetrators stood to earn money from Islamic groups that pay substantial sums for such conversions.
“The Muslims were angry that the girl escaped Islamization,” an Egyptian journalist told Compass. “There is a lot of money involved in Islamization of Coptic girls, as much as thousands of U.S. dollars, funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and Gulf states.”
Kidnap Victim’s Account
Mitry told the Free-Copts Organization that she was drugged by a Muslim friend and kidnapped, according to AINA.
When she awoke, she was in a house in Zagazig, a city in the eastern Nile Delta, and a bearded Muslim man was trying to convert her to Islam. He was later found to be Essam Abu Deiof Hamoud, a relative of the girl who allegedly drugged Mitry.
“The man was very confident and told me that I would be the fourth Coptic girl to ‘know the true Allah’ and convert to Islam through him,” Mitry told Free-Copts, according to AINA. “I told him, ‘I am engaged to be married when I come of age, and would never convert to Islam,’ as this would be a catastrophe for me. He did his best to make me change my mind.”
One of the abductor’s family members, who knew Mitry’s family, contacted them and told them her whereabouts. Her family came to rescue her from Hamoud.
Police told the family to bring her to the state security directorate, but because they distrusted government forces they instead brought her to the Coptic St. Demiana Convent northeast of Cairo. Egyptian authorities have been known to return Coptic girls to their Muslim kidnappers and summarily close cases.
At press time Mitry was still in the convent waiting until tensions diffuse in Toma. Some Christian advocates believe Copts will arrange a marriage for her before she returns to the village to make her less susceptible to a future kidnapping.
Until then, reconciliation meetings between Copts and Muslims continue under the auspices of the police. No Christian clergy are present.
Such meetings are somewhat customary in Egypt, in which different parties come together to settle legal matters out of court. They carry a social purpose of restoring faith and communal harmony in the face of sectarian tensions. But advocacy groups worry when meetings go beyond easing community tensions and act as a substitute for administrative justice and proper investigation.
Rights groups say that Mitry’s kidnapping is a small part of a larger campaign to rid Egypt of its Coptic element through pressuring conversions or otherwise erasing Christianity in the country.
That campaign includes a recent official decree by the Justice Ministry stating that Abu Hennes, one of Egypt’s few completely Coptic cities, would be renamed Wadi al-Neinaa (Mint Valley). The city’s Coptic legacy dates back to the fourth century, and the site is symbolically important as it is believed to have received Mary, Joseph, and Jesus after their flight from Israel.
On Thursday (June 11), thousands of Copts protested the attempted name change, according to Egyptian Christian weekly Watani. Similar demonstrations occurred in 1979 when former President Anwar Sadat also attempted a name change. In the face of protests, he ultimately backed down.
Report from Compass Direct News
Tragedy has struck Buffalo in New York State (USA) with a commuter plane crashing into a home. The crash and fiery explosion that followed has killed all 48 people on board the plane and one person on the ground.
Continental Connection Flight 3407 (Colgan Air) struck the home in Buffalo at about 10.20 pm. The plane involved was a 74-seat Q400 Bombardier aircraft which was carrying a large quantity of fuel when it exploded on impact with the house.
The flight was taking passengers from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey to Buffalo Niagara International Airport in New York State. According to reports, the weather at the time was light snow, some fog and 17 mph winds.
According to witnesses the plane sounded like it was having problems just prior to the crash. The plane has been reported as flying low, with the left wing a little lower than the right. According to air control the plane simply dropped off the radar.
Authorities at the Department of Homeland Security have been quick to rule out terrorism as a cause for the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident, along with the Federal Aviation Administration.
A family assistance number is available for family and friends of those involved in the crash: 1-800-621-3263.
As renewed violence in Mosul halts return, refugees wait in Turkish legal limbo.
ISTANBUL, November 14 (Compass Direct News) – In this Turkish city’s working-class neighborhood of Kurtulus, Arabic can be heard on the streets, signs are printed in the Arabic alphabet and Iraqis congregate in tea shops.
In 99-percent Muslim Turkey, most of these Iraqis are not Muslims. And they are not in Turkey by choice. They are Christian refugees who fled their homeland to escape the murderous violence that increasingly has been directed at them.
It is hard to tell how many of Mosul’s refugees from the recent wave of attacks have made their way to Istanbul, but finding these residents here is not hard. A middle-aged Iraqi refugee who fled Mosul five months ago now attends a Syrian Orthodox Church in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Tarlabasi, where gypsies, transvestites, and immigrants from Turkey’s east live in hopes of a better life in Istanbul.
Declining to give his name, the refugee said there is no future for Christians in Iraq and that nearly everyone he knew there wanted to leave the country. He said the only hope for Iraqi Christians is for Western countries to open their doors to Christian Iraqi refugees.
“We don’t have hope,” he said. “If these doors aren’t opened, we will be killed.”
Since October, violence in Mosul has pushed more than 12,000 Christians from their homes and left more than two dozen dead, according to U.N. and Christian organizations. In the face of Mosul violence, Iraqi Christians flee to Turkey before settling permanently in another country, usually in a place where their family has gone out before them.
Christian Sisters Killed
Weeks after the mass exodus of Mosul Christians to surrounding villages, Turkey and other nations, around one-third of families reportedly have returned due to the presence of 35,000 army and police and the Iraqi government offering cash grants of up to $800.
But those returning Christians were shaken again on Wednesday (Nov. 12), when Islamic militants stormed into the house of two Syrian Catholic sisters, Lamia’a Sabih and Wala’a Saloha, killing them and severely injuring their mother. They then bombed their house and detonated a second explosive when the police arrived, which killed three more.
The Christian family had recently returned after having fled Mosul. Many believe this attack will deter other Christians from returning to Mosul, and there are reports of Christians again leaving the area.
There has been a steady exodus of Christians from Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991. The church in Iraq dates from the beginning of Christianity, but the population has plummeted by 50 percent in the last 20 years. The outflow of Iraqi Christians spiked in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion.
Although Iraq as a whole has seen a dramatic decrease in violence due to last year’s surge in U.S. troops, the flight of Christians to Turkey has grown. One-third of the 18,000 refugees who registered in Turkey last year are from Iraq. In Syria, an estimated 40 percent of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have fled Iraq are Christians, though they make up only about 3 percent of Iraq’s population.
Monsignor Francois Yakan, the 50-year-old leader of the Chaldean Church in Turkey, said all Iraqi refugees are undergoing hardships regardless of religion, but that the situation is especially difficult for Christians since there is less support for them in Turkey.
“Muslims have the same difficulty as Christians, but there are more foundations to assist them,” he said. “The government notices Muslim immigrants, but nobody pays attention to us.”
Yakan travels to other countries to raise awareness of the plight of Iraqi Christians, trying to marshal the support of government and church leaders – last week he traveled to France, Romania and Germany. If Western governments don’t wake up to this crisis, he said, the results could be catastrophic.
“People don’t know the plight of Iraqi Christians. They have no government, no soldiers, and no power,” he said. “Christianity in Iraq is ending. Why aren’t they noticing this?”
Strangers in Strange Land
The unnamed Iraqi refugee in Tarlabasi said not even pleas from Iraqi priests can make them stay.
“The church in Iraq can’t stop the people from leaving because they can’t guarantee their security,” he said.
He came to Istanbul with his family but still has an adult son and daughter in the city. He hopes to join his brother in the United States soon.
A group of Iraqi refugees at a tea shop in the Kurtulus area of Istanbul interrupted their card game to talk to Compass of their troubled lives.
“We can’t find any work,” said Baghdad-born Iraqi Jalal Toma, who acted as the translator for the group. He pointed to a young man at the table and said, “He works moving boxes and carrying things, and they pay him half as much as a Turk for a day’s work.”
All of the men are Chaldean Christians, a Catholic Eastern-rite church whose historical homeland is in northern Iraq, and came from Mosul in recent months. They are chronically under-employed and rely on financial help from family members abroad to make ends meet.
They had to flee their homes at a moment’s notice, taking along their families but leaving behind their cars, houses and most of their possessions. The men hope to join family members who live in foreign countries, but they harbor few hopes that they can ever return to Iraq again.
Work is scarce for refugees and hard to come by legally in Turkey. To survive, most Iraqi Christians rely on money from families abroad or the handful of local church charities that struggle to keep up with the overwhelming volume of refugees, such as the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program, an ecumenical umbrella group that unites the city’s parishes to assist migrants and asylum seekers.
Another such charity is Kasdar, the Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Organization, run by Yakan, the Chaldean Church leader in Turkey.
He launched Kasdar two years ago to provide a safety net for Christian refugees who live in Turkey’s legal limbo. Kasdar assists all Christians regardless of denomination or faith tradition and has 16 volunteers from an equally diverse background.
Yakan sees thousands of refugees pass through Istanbul each year. Most of them are Chaldean, and he knows of 60-70 people who fled due to the recent October violence in Mosul. He travels constantly to visit Chaldean refugees scattered throughout the country.
When refugees first arrive in Turkey, they must register with the United Nations as asylum seekers. The Turkish police then assign them to one of 35 cities to live in as they wait to receive official refugee status. These Christians face the biggest hardships since they don’t have access to the same social resources as refugees in Istanbul, said Metin Corabatir, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Turkey.
“The Chaldean population faces problems in Turkey, especially due to the policy of resettling them to satellite cities,” said Corabatir. “The Chaldeans in Istanbul have NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] and churches to help them, but in satellite cities there is no church or community to help them.”
Most refugees send their children to school at a local center run by Caritas, a Catholic confederation of relief, development and social service organizations. Here, Iraq children receive education and lessons in basic vocational skills.
The wait for legal status can be as short as a few months or a couple of years. But complicated circumstances can push back the wait to five years, 10 years, or even 17 years – as it is now for a man who fled during the first Gulf War, Yakan of the Chaldean Church said.
Another church leader who has helped Christian refugees is 70-year-old Monsignor Yusuf Sag, vicar general of the Syrian Catholic Church in Turkey. His 350-person congregation assembles packets of clothes and food for the refugees.
Many who come to Sag also seek medical help. He has connections with doctors throughout the city, both Muslim and Christian, who offer basic treatment to refugees free of charge. Sag said he tries to help all who come to him, without asking them of their denomination or even their religion.
“Their situation is not a Christian problem, but a human problem,” he said.
Often Iraqi Christians work illegally, where they are vulnerable to extortion. Refugee workers in Istanbul said registered asylum seekers can work legally, but it is not uncommon for employers to garnish their wages or withhold them completely, with the foreigners getting little protection from police.
The Turkish government charges a refugee a residence tax of US$460 a year and will not allow them to leave the country until it is paid, making them remain in the country even longer. With all these hurdles to finding stable employment, many Iraqi refugees are never too far from homelessness.
“There was a family we found living on the streets – a husband, wife and two children,” Yakan said. “They have lived in Istanbul for six months and couldn’t even afford to pay rent.”
His foundation found the family an apartment and assisted them with rent, but they only have enough resources to help for two months.
Kasdar gave similar assistance to 54 families in October. But the organization can only help for a few months at a time and assist the most vulnerable refugees.
Report from Compass Direct News
A little over a year ago, adventurer Steve Fossett disappeared while on a flight from Nevada in the United States. Now items allegedly belonging to Steve Fossett have been found by a Preston Morrow while hiking through a remote area in California near Mammoth Lakes. The area where the items were found is west of Mammoth Lakes in the Inyo National Forest.
The items included items of ID with Steve Fossett’s name on it, cash and a jumper. The ID included a pilot’s license and a Federal Aviation Administration Identity Card.
The items found on Tuesday the 30th September 2008 have been handed over to police.
A command centre was soon set up at Mammoth Lakes Airport and aerial searches of the area where the items were found carried out. Aircraft wreckage has been found in the area and the wreckage is now being investigated.
Fossett’s plane took off from a private airfield south of Reno in Nevada on the 3rd September 2007 and he has not been heard off since. Fossett has been declared dead by authorities.
BELOW: Footage covering the story
BELOW: Footage covering the original story of Fossett’s disappearance