Church ministry in Syria treads carefully after shut down

The spiritual climate in Syria is a changing one. While Syria’s Christian minority is generally respected, conversions to Christianity from Islam are rare and sometimes met with opposition, reports MNN.

Voice of the Martyrs reports that evangelizing is legal, but visas are not granted for missionary work. And while there is freedom to worship, any activity that could threaten communal harmony is suspect, making it difficult to spread the Gospel.

Despite the challenges, Reach Global in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) began in 2008. The team working in the area is focused on holistic ministry: meeting physical and emotional needs as well as the spiritual needs of an individual.

They have been working together with churches, national partners, and collaborating with like-minded ministry organizations in order to reach the Syrians with the hope of Christ, and there has been success. A church has been planted.

This June however, the Syrian government closed the doors of that evangelical church. The group is still hoping to meet for worship and Bible study, but they are praying for wisdom and discernment on how to do that and still remain within the law.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

50 000 Visitors

The Random Thoughts Blog has reached something of a milestone – we have now had 50 000 visitors since we moved to the blogging platform. This isn’t a huge number of visitors when compared/contrasted with other sites, but it is still a big thing for this Blog. I wasn’t sure how many visitors we would get – I certainly wasn’t expecting that many. So thank you to everyone who has ever visited the site – even if you weren’t among our happier site viewers.

To mark this occasion I have changed the appearance of the Blog, to one that I hope is aesthetically more appealing and that will making the reading experience here so much better. The previous red-coloured links were getting to me, so I think this new look improves the reading experience here. Hopefully that proves to be the case. I do prefer the more clean approach to a Blog – much like a magazine or article in a book. It just allows me to enjoy the reading experience without having to struggle to stay focused on what I’m reading.

Anyhow – thanks again – and please come back.

Bomb Attack in Iraq Seriously Injures Christian Students

One person dead in explosions that end classes for students this semester.

ISTANBUL, May 5 (CDN) — At least 50 Iraqi Christian students are receiving hospital treatment following a bomb attack on Sunday (May 2) outside Mosul that killed at least one person and has forced nearly 1,000 students to drop classes for the rest of the semester.

Nearly 160 people were injured in the blasts targeting three buses full of Christians traveling to the University of Mosul for classes. The convoy of buses, which brings Christian students from villages east of Mosul, was making its daily route accompanied by two Iraqi army cars.

“This is the hardest attack, because they attacked not only one car, but the whole convoy and in an area that is heavily guarded by the army,” said Syrian Catholic Bishop of Mosul Georges Casmoussa.

The explosions happened east of Mosul between two checkpoints. A roadside bomb followed by a car bomb reportedly exploded as the buses were clearing the second checkpoint in the area of Kokjaly. The checkpoint was staffed by U.S., Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish soldiers.

The owner of a nearby car repair shop, Radeef Hashim Mahrook, was killed in one of the blasts as he tried to help the students, sources said.

Sources told Compass that lately there have been indications that Islamic extremists intend to increase attacks against Christians in more sophisticated and targeted ways. There were no warnings of the Sunday blasts.

Nearly 20 of the more seriously injured students are receiving treatment in Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Casmoussa said the Turkish Consulate and the Kurdish Regional Government have offered to transfer students needing more medical care to Turkey.

“Some of them were severely injured in the face, arms, necks or eyes,” said Casmoussa. “Now the Turkish consulate and the government of Kurdistan offer us to bring the most injured to Turkey to continue the care.”

Many of Mosul’s Christians have fled the city after repeated violence targeting them and live in the villages east of the city. The students on Sunday’s convoy were from Qaraqosh, Karamless and Bartella, located nearly 32 kilometers (20 miles) away.

Over 1,000 Christian students, most belonging to internally displaced families, and about 100 university faculty and staff members commute to Mosul every week in buses belonging to the Syrian Catholic Bishopric. About 15 buses served the internally displaced Christian community daily.

“The project of transportation of students will be stopped,” said Casmoussa. “We can’t continue now.” 

While the church has focused on dealing with immediate medical needs, the bishop said the church simply could not take the responsibility of transporting students after such a calculated and fierce attack.

“The chief of army offered to help us again, but it is impossible,” said Casmoussa. “They were with us every day…yet this is the result. We don’t have another solution now.”

Last February, after attacks against Christians left three university students dead, the Chaldo-Assyrian Student and Youth Union proposed that the Ministry of Education open a new university in a safer area on the Nineveh plains. Nearly 3,000 Christian undergraduate students and 250 graduate students are studying in Mosul.

Casmoussa said the Christian community is hoping the University of Mosul will help Christian students who are unwilling to commute to Mosul by sending faculty members to hold semester-end examinations in Qaraqosh.

“This is [an attack] against all the Christian people,” said Casmoussa. “Our culture is immense capital for the future to build our lives, not just to have bread to eat and continue life without any sense.”

Due to the violence against Christians in Mosul, Casmoussa relocated to the village of Qaraqosh three years ago, and commutes into the city to serve his diocese. On Jan. 17, 2005 gunmen abducted him and released him the next day.

Sunni Muslim insurgents have frequently targeted members of Iraq’s Christian minority, especially in Mosul. Iraq’s current government is Shiite-led.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Anglican Communion of U.K. first to accept Pope’s offer

Members of The Traditional Anglican Church in Great Britain have announced that they will enter into communion with the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Constitution for Anglicans, reports Catholic News Agency.

According to the group’s website, members met on October 29 for their October 2009 Assembly. They scrapped their initial itinerary for the meeting following the Vatican’s Oct. 20 announcement that an Apostolic Constitution was being prepared in response to requests from groups of Anglican clergy and faithful wanting to enter into full communion with the Church. Instead, the assembly focused on what the news from the Vatican meant for the small group of Anglicans who are part of the Traditional Anglican Communion.

Anglican Bishop David Moyer released a statement describing the October Assembly as “grace-filled,” noting that everyone in attendance became “aware of the movement of the Holy Spirit.”

“The bishops, priests, ordinands, and lay representatives were brought to a place of ‘being in full accord and of one mind,’ as St. Paul prayed for the Church in Philippi,” Bishop Moyer wrote.

During the assembly, Bishop Moyer as well as Anglican Bishops John Hepworth and Robert Mercer fielded questions about the Vatican proposal before the Assembly unanimously passed resolutions written to carefully “and clearly reflect TTAC’s corporate desire and intention.”

The resolutions state that the Traditional Anglican Communion in Great Britain “offers its joyful thanks to Pope Benedict XVI for his forthcoming Apostolic Constitution allowing the corporate reunion of Anglicans with the Holy See, and requests the Primate and College of Bishops of the Traditional Anglican Communion to take the steps necessary to implement this Constitution.”

Bishop Moyer added, “All present realised that the requirement for the days ahead is patience, charity, and openness to the Holy Spirit.”

Though the Apostolic Constitution is not yet available, Cardinal William Joseph Levada, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith announced on Oct. 31 that it will be ready “by the end of the first week of November.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Lawyer Calls Turkish Christians’ Trial a ‘Scandal’

Evidence still absent in case for ‘insulting Turkishness and Islam.’

SILIVRI, Turkey, October 16 (CDN) — After three prosecution witnesses testified yesterday that they didn’t even know two Christians on trial for “insulting Turkishness and Islam,” a defense lawyer called the trial a “scandal.”

Speaking after yesterday’s hearing in the drawn-out trial, defense attorney Haydar Polat said the case’s initial acceptance by a state prosecutor in northwestern Turkey was based only on a written accusation from the local gendarmerie headquarters unaccompanied by any documentation.

“It’s a scandal,” Polat said. “It was a plot, a planned one, but a very unsuccessful plot, as there is no evidence.”

Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal were arrested in October 2006; after a two-day investigation they were charged with allegedly slandering Turkishness and Islam while talking about their faith with three young men in Silivri, an hour’s drive west of Istanbul.

Even the three prosecution witnesses who appeared to testify at Thursday’s (Oct. 15) hearing failed to produce any evidence whatsoever against Tastan and Topal, who could be jailed for up to two years if convicted on three separate charges.

Yesterday’s three witnesses, all employed as office personnel for various court departments in Istanbul, testified that they had never met or heard of the two Christians on trial. The two court employees who had requested New Testaments testified that they had initiated the request themselves.

The first witness, a bailiff in a Petty Offenses Court in Istanbul for the past 28 years, declared he did not know the defendants or anyone else in the courtroom.

But he admitted that he had responded to a newspaper ad about 10 years ago to request a free New Testament. After telephoning the number to give his address, he said, the book arrived in the mail and is still in his home.

He also said he had never heard of the church mentioned in the indictment, although he had once gone to a wedding in a church in Istanbul’s Balikpazari district, where a large Armenian Orthodox church is located.

“This is the extent of what I know about this subject,” he concluded.

Fidgeting nervously, a second witness stated, “I am not at all acquainted with the defendants, nor do I know any of these participants. I was not a witness to any one of the matters in the indictment. I just go back and forth to my work at the Istanbul State Prosecutors’ office.”

The third person to testify reiterated that he also had no acquaintance with the defendants or anyone in the courtroom. But he stated under questioning that he had entered a website on the Internet some five or six years ago that offered a free New Testament.

“I don’t know or remember the website’s name or contents,” the witness said, “but after checking the box I was asked for some of my identity details, birth date, job, cell phone – I don’t remember exactly what.”

Noting that many shops and markets asked for the same kind of information, the witness said, “I don’t see any harm in that,” adding that he would not be an open person if he tried to hide all his personal details.

For the next hearing set for Jan. 28, 2010, the court has repeated its summons to three more prosecution witnesses who failed to appear yesterday: a woman employed in Istanbul’s security police headquarters and two armed forces personnel whose whereabouts had not yet been confirmed by the population bureau.

Case ‘Demands Acquittal’

Polat said after the hearing that even though the Justice Ministry gave permission in February for the case to continue under Turkey’s controversial Article 301, a loosely-defined law that criminalizes insulting the Turkish nation, “in my opinion the documents gathered in the file demand an acquittal.”

“There is no information, no document, no details, nothing,” Polat said. “There is just a video, showing the named people together, but what they are saying cannot be heard. It was shot in an open area, not a secret place, and there is no indication it was under any pressure.”

But prosecution lawyer Murat Inan told Compass, “Of course there is evidence. That’s why the Justice Ministry continued the case. This is a large ‘orgut’ [a term connoting an illegal and armed organization], and they need to be stopped from doing this propaganda here.”

At the close of the hearing, Inan told the court that there were missing issues concerning the judicial legality and activities of the “Bible research center” linked with the defendants that needed to be examined and exposed.

Turkish press were conspicuously absent at yesterday’s hearing, and except for one representative of the Turkish Protestant churches, there were no observers present.

The first seven hearings in the trial had been mobbed by dozens of TV and print journalists, focused on ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, who led a seven-member legal team for the prosecution.

But since the January 2008 jailing of Kerincsiz and Sevgi Erenerol, who had accompanied him to all the Silivri trials, Turkish media interest in the case has dwindled. The two are alleged co-conspirators in the massive Ergenekon cabal accused of planning to overthrow the Turkish government.

This week the European Commission’s new “Turkey 2009 Progress Report” spelled out concerns about the problems of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities.

“Missionaries are widely perceived as a threat to the integrity of the country and to the Muslim religion,” the Oct. 14 report stated. “Further efforts are needed to create an environment conducive to full respect of freedom of religion in particular.”

In specific reference to Tastan and Topal’s case, the report noted: “A court case against two missionaries in Silivri continued; it was also expanded after the Ministry of Justice allowed judicial proceedings under Article 301 of the Criminal Code.”

The Turkish constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all its citizens, and the nation’s legal codes specifically protect missionary activities.

“I trust our laws on this. But psychologically, our judges and prosecutors are not ready to implement this yet,” Polat said. “They look at Christian missionaries from their own viewpoint; they aren’t able to look at them in a balanced way.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Sodom found? The quest for the lost city of destruction – Part 2

By Brian Nixon, special to ASSIST News Service

Dr. Steven Collins, the unassuming archeologist from New Mexico, was at a crossroad. The site he was helping to excavate in the West Bank (Ai) from 1995-2000 closed down due to warfare and political maneuvering in the region. Steve, and project director Bryant Wood, had to close up shop.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he told me in a recent interview. “For the past five years, my life had been consumed by this dig. Then it was gone. I was dumbfounded.”

But this closed door proved to be an opening for something more amazing.

“It was then that I decided to conduct some research on a thought I had in 1996. During an archeology tour, I found that the traditional site for Sodom (known as the “Southern Theory”) didn’t match the geographical profile as described in Genesis 13-19.”

“As I began to research it more, and read through Genesis 13-19 several times, I had a thought that I had to pursue: they have the wrong location.”

“Many think Sodom is in the South (modeled after the famous archeologist, William F. Albright’s views), but the text seems to indicate that the site is in the Northeast,” he continued.

As “Indiana Jones” as Steve’s thoughts were, the conclusions and findings could be even more monumental than any blockbuster movie.

Essentially, Steve took the literal text of Genesis 13-19 and created a theoretical map, using the research methodology of Dr. Peter Briggs. This “map” utilizes a scientific approach to determine the validity of ancient texts. The conclusion? The texts in Genesis are reliable geographical indicators.

Working with Briggs, Collins developed a theory that the location was not in the Southern region, but in the Northeast.

From there, Dr. Collins began to flesh out his thoughts in a formal paper. This 250-page research paper was highlighted at the Near-Eastern Society Conference.

In his research, Collins focused in on five key areas: the geographical indicators, the chronological indicators, the terms of the destruction, the architecture and pottery, and the facts themselves.

“What I didn’t want to do,” he said, “was trample down the well-worn theories of past commentators and scholars. Basically, I wanted the text to speak for itself.”

“At the NES meeting, I received favorable comments from men of whom I have the utmost respect. I knew we were on to something quite thrilling.”

The one thing left to do was further research and the beginning of a dig.

“So my wife, a couple of students from Trinity Southwest University, and I headed off to Jordan to do research. We were in Jordan by 2002.”

“When I was doing research in the U.S., many of the maps and books were conspicuously absent of any detailed information regarding the north eastern region of the Dead Sea. Sadly, many of the scholars had ignored the text in Genesis.”

In Jordan, Collins found a host of helpful material.

“While in Jordan I found many maps, books, and archeological information at the American Center for Oriental Research library. In particular, a book by the journalist Rami Khouri, gave me the foundation I needed to get started.”

“Though this book was a popular work, it quoted from—and made reference to—many scholarly works. From that point on, we used Khouri’s book as a guide to the Jordanian literature on the sites north of the Dead Sea . We spent hours copying as much material as we could.”

“What we discovered seemed to coincide with our findings: Sodom was not in the south, it was northeast of the Dead Sea.”

“We were able to locate some information from one of the last major digs that occurred in the area. We also paid close attention to a 1975/1976 survey of the Jordan Valley. This survey stated that the area of our interest had many ancient sites.”

“So we headed off to the area northeast of the Dead Sea and began to look around. What we found amazed us. There were at least ten sites that could possibly be ancient Sodom.”

“Sodom is mentioned first in the Bible—consistently—thereby giving it prominence as the largest city in that area. So based upon the text and our previous research we chose the largest site. And let me tell you, this find at Tel-al-Hammam turned out to be much greater than we ever hoped for.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Key attorney for Uyghur Christian among those effectively disbarred.

DUBLIN, June 11 (Compass Direct News) – Li Dunyong, one of several lawyers involved in the defense of Uyghur house church Christian Alimjan Yimit (Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese) was effectively disbarred at the end of May when Chinese authorities turned down an annual application to renew his law license.

Zhang Kai, another Beijing lawyer who had defended Alimjan, suffered the same fate.

Authorities failed to renew licenses for at least 15 other lawyers who had defended civil rights cases, religious and ethnic minorities and political dissidents, according to watch group Human Rights in China (HRIC).

During a process of “Annual Inspection and Registration” for all lawyers and law firms, with a closing date of May 31 for renewal applications, authorities also denied three law firms the necessary approval to practice. Officials harassed and physically abused several of the affected lawyers in the months prior to the loss of their licenses.

The lawyers can technically appeal this decision or re-apply at a later date, but most see this as a clear warning to avoid handling sensitive cases.

“The process of building a country ruled by law has suffered a serious setback,” HRIC claimed in a statement on June 4.

The rejection of applications followed the Feb. 4 disappearance of Gao Zhisheng, a high-profile Christian human rights activist who once said that every human rights lawyer would eventually become a human rights case. Gao’s whereabouts remained unknown at press time. (See “Action Urged for Missing Rights Activist,” March 25.)

Lawyer Li had planned to visit Alimjan in northwest China early this month, but recent events have forced the legal team to reconsider its defense strategy.

Alimjan, a member of the troubled Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province, remains in arbitrary detention awaiting trial, 16 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. Last May 21, government sources told Alimjan’s mother that the Public Security Bureau (PSB) in Kashgar planned to quietly sentence him to three years of re-education through labor, thereby circumventing the court system.

Under Chinese law the PSB, which originally filed the case against Alimjan, may authorize such sentences without approval from the court or other state agencies.

The case was returned to court for consideration last October, but at press time there was no indication of another date for a court hearing.

Li 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 a 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.

The beating followed a previous meeting with his lawyer – only the second of such visits permitted during his detention – on March 24.

Human Rights Advocates Threatened

On April 13, China’s State Council released a new “National Human Rights Action Plan” that focused heavily on protecting the rights of prisoners and included a pledge to abolish torture and other forms of abuse within two years.

Issued at least partially in response to a United Nations review of China’s rights record in February, the plan also affirmed the right of prisoners to hire and meet with lawyers and to report abuses in writing to the appropriate authorities.

Contrary to such promises, however, the detention and physical abuse of lawyers has multiplied in recent months, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for HRW, maintains that control over the yearly renewal of licenses remains one of the main obstacles to the independence of China’s legal profession.

Authorities placed several human rights lawyers under house arrest or heavy surveillance in the first week of June as China marked the 20th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. According to HRIC, policemen seized one of the 15 temporarily disbarred lawyers, Tang Jitian, from his home early on the morning of June 4; they had already detained him for 10 hours the previous day.

“This is a display of meticulously planned suppression of lawyers who enforce and uphold the law and are dedicated to public interests,” Tang told HRIC.

One lawyer, Jiang Tianyong, said officers barred him from leaving his home on June 3 and told him, “Think of your wife and child.” Jiang is among those whose licenses were not renewed.

In late May, HRW reported that Beijing authorities had pressured several legal firms not to endorse the renewal applications of members who had defended civil rights cases.

Report from Compass Direct News


Copt leaving sanctuary knifed in Minya; bomb explodes near venerable structure in Cairo.

ISTANBUL, May 22 (Compass Direct News) – In separate attacks in Egypt earlier this month, a Coptic Christian suffered severe stab wounds as he left a worship service in Minya, and a car-bombing outside a venerable church in Cairo disrupted a wedding.

Without provocation, three Muslims repeatedly stabbed Coptic Christian Girgis Yousry, 21, as the army conscript was leaving the gates of the church of Saint Mary in Minya, Upper Egypt on May 2, according to Copts United.

The assault left him with severe injuries to internal organs, and he was taken to the district hospital, where he was still receiving treatment at press time.

When Yousry’s father went to the police station to report the attack, the Intelligence Services officer in charge threw him out of the station. Three men implicated in the stabbing, Wael Mohammed Hagag, Mohammed Nasr Anwar and Shabaan Sayed Amin, were arrested on May 5 and have been given a 16-day initial incarceration while the investigation is underway.

All three men stand accused of attempted murder without premeditation, which carries a sentence of five to 15 years.

But Mamdouh Nakhla, president of the Al-Kalema Centre for Human Rights, said he thinks it unlikely that they will be convicted.

“From my experience over the last 15 years, in Minya in particular, all cases of attacks and murder against Christians either went without punishment and [the accused] were totally exonerated, or they were given suspended sentences,” he said.

Home to Egypt’s largest community of Copts (approximately 4 million), Minya is considered a hotbed of anti-Christian violence.

“I am aware of severe injustices happening to Christians who are being incarcerated for no reason,” said Nakhla. “This is my experience of Minya.”

Local sources told Compass that in the last few months there has been a wave of arrests of Christians who are held with no official charges. Sources spoke of cases where detainees are held for months in prison, where they are badly beaten and tortured.

“Police brutality is a widely practiced policy,” said one source, “especially in rural areas, group punishment and systematic intimidation and humiliation are expected practices against all citizens, Christians included.”

This month Compass learned of three illegal arrests of Christians that have taken place since November 2008. Two of the men who were detained have since been released.

“When people are released, they have been beaten and electrocuted so that they are hardly standing up,” said a local Christian.

Local church leaders believe recent pressure is a response to rumors of an increase in Christian converts in Egypt due to Christian satellite programming, although arrests go beyond converts to Coptic-born Christians.

Makeshift Bomb

In Cairo, a makeshift bomb placed under a car exploded outside a renowned Catholic church building in Zeitoun district on May 9, incinerating the vehicle but causing no injuries.

Panicked passersby called police when the small explosion caused the car to burst into flames outside Saint Mary Church, which Egypt’s Coptic community, citing numerous sightings of the Virgin Mary there in the late 1960s, considers a holy site.

Security forces arrived at the scene within minutes and sealed off the area. They found a second bomb, also planted beneath a car. Unable to disarm it, they were forced to detonate it in a controlled fashion, sources told Compass.

The explosion interrupted a wedding and a Bible study that were taking place inside the revered, historic building. Those in attendance were evacuated through a side gate as a precaution, reported Egyptian newspaper Watani. Boutros Gayed, the church’s priest, was unavailable for comment.

The bombs were rudimentary. Cell phones were used as detonators and placed with the explosive material into a bag containing shrapnel.

Police have yet to release information about possible suspects or motives, but newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm has stated security forces are investigating possible links to a Hezbollah cell, which uses similar explosive devices.

A spokesman for Hezbollah has denied its involvement, stating that the cell was focused on supporting Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and has never had plans to carry out operations in Egypt.

The head of the Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda, condemned the attack as criminal and pointed to sectarian motives.

“[The bombers] are attempting to tamper with the future of this homeland that they do not deserve to belong to,” he said, according to Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.

Similarities between this event and an explosion in February outside Al-Hussain Mosque, where one person was killed and 24 others wounded, have led to speculation that the attacks may be part of an attempt to inflame sectarian tensions.

Rumors also have been spread that “extremist Coptic groups” may have planted the devices in order to attract U.S. President Barack Obama’s attention to their plight on his planned June 4 visit to Cairo.

“This sounds like a ridiculous suggestion, because the Copts do not even respond to attacks against them,” said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of United Copts of Great Britain. “It is not in their agenda, and they have no precedence of violence.”

Report from Compass Direct News