ALGERIA: CHRISTIANS ACQUITTED IN BLASPHEMY CASE


Verdict suggests Algerian government could be softening crackdown on Christians.

ISTANBUL, October 29 (Compass Direct News) – A court in northwestern Algeria today acquitted three Christians charged with blaspheming Islam and threatening a member of their congregation who re-converted to Islam.

The acquittal was announced in a court at Ain El-Turck, 15 kilometers (nine miles) west of the coastal city of Oran. The defendants believe the judge’s decision to acquit was due to the spurious evidence used against them.

The acquittal also comes as part of a larger trend of the Algerian government bowing to negative international media attention and government condemnations of such cases, they said.

Defendant Youssef Ourahmane said that as a result, a recent government crackdown against evangelical Christians has eased off in recent months.

“We had noticed the last four or five months the government is trying to back down a little bit,” Ourahmane said. “I think the pressure on them has been strong, such as condemnations from the U.S. and foreign ministries from France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Spain. This pressure from outside has embarrassed the Algerian government very much.”

Algerian courts have handed several suspended sentences to local evangelicals in the last year under a recent presidential decree that prohibits proselytizing Muslims. No Christian, however, has served prison time on religious charges.

Ourahmane, Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, and a third man were charged in February with “blaspheming the name of the Prophet [Muhammad] and Islam” and threatening the life of a man who claimed to have converted to Christianity but who “returned” to Islam when his fundamentalist ties were exposed.

The first hearing of the three men took place on Oct. 21 in Ain El-Turck. A lawyer appointed by the Ministry of Religion also joined the hearing and surprised the defendants by supporting their plight.

The lawyer affirmed the rights of religious minorities such as Christians in Algeria. The Christians present said she would like the case to be closed.

A prosecutor in the case had sought three years of prison for the three men and a fine of 50,000 dinars (653 euros) for each.

Taking the stand last week, the three men were asked whether they had blasphemed Muhammad and threatened Shamouma Al-Aid, the convert and plaintiff. Al-Aid had professed Christianity from July 2004 through July 2006, when he attended a church near Oran. It was there that he met the Christians, against whom he later filed the blasphemy complaint.

Essaghir, an evangelist and church elder for a small community of Muslim converts to Christianity in Tiaret, has been one of the most targeted Christians in Algeria.

In the last year he has received three sentences, one for blasphemy and two for evangelism. Police stopped Essaghir and another man in June 2007 while transporting Christian literature. As a result they were convicted in absentia in November 2007 and given a two-year sentence and 5,000-euro fines. The Protestants requested a retrial, and the charges were dropped at a hearing in June.

Asked if he could explain why he and other Christians were under fire by Islamists, he told Compass that Muslims felt menaced by the existence of Christianity and its rise in Algeria.

“We are attacked because Muslims feel threatened by us,” said Essaghir. “There are many people who are coming to Christ.”

When the three accused Christians met Al-Aid, he claimed that his family was persecuting him, so they took him in to their church community. But in 2006 the Christians learned that Al-Aid in fact had links with Islamic fundamentalists.

After excommunicating Al-Aid, in October 2007 the three Christians were summoned by police when Al-Aid registered his complaint that they had insulted Muhammad and Islam and threatened his life.

“But the accusations against us are unfounded,” Essaghir told Compass last week by phone. “There is no proof, but we are being condemned because there is no justice.”

Ourahmane said that Al-Aid had shown the police text messages to support his claims, but that police said the number had not been registered with telecommunications services.

With their fresh acquittal, the three Christians could open a case against Al-Aid for bringing a case against them based on spurious evidence, according to Algerian law.

Instead, they want to offer their forgiveness, Ourahmane said.

“We have decided to forgive him and will communicate we are all ready to help him if he needs any help,” he said. “We are in touch with him through one of our team members, and if he is thirsty or hungry we are more than happy to help.”

 

Pressure on Algeria’s Church

The three acquitted men are just a few of the Algerian Christians who have come under legal heat in a wave of trials this year against the country’s tiny evangelical church.

Habiba Kouider, facing a three-year sentence after police stopped her while she was carrying several Christian books, has been kicked out of her family’s home. Kouider’s brothers learned about her conversion to Christianity after her case sparked national and international media attention.

In most cases the Christians have been charged under a presidential decree from February 2006 that restricts religious worship to government-approved buildings. The decree, known as Ordinance 06-03, also outlaws any attempt to convert Muslims to another faith.

The international community has been vocal about the Algerian government’s stance toward Christians. On June 6, some 30 U.S. congressmen sent a letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

They addressed human rights violations resulting from Ordinance 06-03, which has resulted in the closures of churches and criminal charges against Christians.

Algeria’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but loose terminology in its penal code – such as Article 144, which calls for up to five years of prison for “anyone who offends the Prophet and denigrates the tenets of Islam” – has allowed judges to give Islamic practice the force of law.

On Sept. 29 six men in Biskra, 420 kilometers (260 miles) south of Algiers, were sentenced to four years of prison for eating in public before sunset during the month of Ramadan, according to Algerian national daily Liberte. Muslims are required to abstain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset during this 30-day period.

An Oct. 6 editorial in Algerian daily El Watan lamented the decision as proof that religious rights were eroding in Algeria.

“The divine law itself does not provide for severe penalties, and even the Taliban regime is not as strict,” said editorial writer Reda Bekkat. “One can imagine a judge tomorrow questioning people [who were] walking on the streets at the hour of prayer because they are not at the mosque.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

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PAKISTAN: PASTOR SUFFERS POLICE ATTACKS, DEATH THREATS


Officers from different police stations beat him; murder suspect threatens to kill him.

ISTANBUL, October 9 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani pastor and his family in Punjab province have been living in fear for months after death threats from a murder suspect and repeated attacks on their house by police squads.

Pastor Christopher Manzer, 55, of Jhugian Baja Singh, told Compass by telephone that a Muslim man blames him for the loss of his wife and unborn baby and has enlisted extremist Muslim groups to mount a wave of attacks on him.

“I’m a Christian pastor, and in Pakistan you know it is a trend to hurt the Christians,” said Manzer, pastor of Pentecostal Church of Jesus Disciples, by telephone from Jhugian Baja Singh, 26 kilometers (16 miles) southwest of Lahore. “Most Christians are suffering very much.”

Mohammad Nawaz considers the pastor responsible for his divorce and the subsequent deaths of his ex-wife and unborn baby following an abortion. Nawaz’s uncle, a man identified only as Makha whom Nishter Colony police are seeking in connection with the murders of two Christian men in the past three months, has called the pastor twice telling him to leave town or die.

Manzer said he received the first death threat from Makha on Sept. 21, and then again on Saturday (Oct. 4) at 7 p.m.

“Be careful, I’m going to kill you – you have only a few days left in the world … your days are numbered,” Makha told Manzer on the phone last month.

“He is still receiving death threats,” said Shahzad Kamran of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan (SLMP). “Makha is giving life threats to Pastor Christopher and telling him to leave the area and go to another place, otherwise they we will kill him and his family. They are afraid.”

 

Seeds of Grudge

Nawaz and the daughter of a member of Manzer’s church converted to Islam in order to elope, hoping that Islamic law would shield them from their families, who were opposed to their marriage.

Convinced that his daughter, Sana Bibi, had been kidnapped, Anwer Masih sought help from Manzer and others to get her back. Soon after Nawaz and Bibi were married, Nawaz became increasingly Islamic in his views, prompting her to seek help from her family to find a way out of the marriage.

Manzer stepped in to help reconcile Masih to his daughter, forgive her and take her back. On July 16, 2007 she filed for divorce, which was approved on March 28. In January, Nawaz had opened a dispute case against Manzer and Masih. A Pakistani court dismissed the case.

Bibi returned to her Christian faith and practices with the encouragement of Manzer. On April 7, however, members of the Liberty police station in Lahore broke into Manzer’s house, kicked him and beat him with sticks for an hour, verbally harassing him and his wife as well as their four children, ages 8 to 21.

Manzer was able to identify the police station because of the van that officers drove and parked near his house. The officers handcuffed him and took him to his church, where believers were gathered for a prayer meeting, and continued to beat him.

This was the first of five beatings and arrests by officers of police stations from other townships around Lahore. Each time friends came to Manzer’s rescue with a bribe, police relented and claimed to have caught the wrong man. The pastor said that paying police to keep them from beating him has exhausted his and his parishioners’ finances.

He said the beatings, which occurred twice in the middle of the night at his home, twice at the church and once at the police station, took place between April 7 and July 5. On two occasions Manzer was able to identify the responsible police station as Model Town Lahore.

The police station of his area, Manga Mandi, supports the pastor but cannot take action against other police stations, a station officer reportedly told the pastor.

On Aug. 26, Nawaz opened a second court case in a First Incident Report (FIR) at Manga Mandi police station against Manzer, Masih and seven other individuals, accusing them of forcibly entering his house in January, physically attacking him and his family and kidnapping Bibi. He further claimed that they threatened to kill him and stole 10,000 rupees (US$125) and gold objects.

“It is a fabricated story,” said Kamran of the SLMP.

Masih told SLMP staff, “Nawaz has relations with some Muslims who support him; he already has implicated us in a false case of quarrel … Now he again implicated us in a murder case of my daughter.”

In May, about five months after Bibi left Nawaz, she was admitted into the hospital with a high fever. She was treated by a midwife but died on May 27. SLMP staff confirmed that she had been pregnant and had had an abortion. According to her medical report, she died due to septic shock.

Manzer said Nawaz enlisted the help of extremist Muslims and his uncle out of anger over his ordeal and because Manzer was acquitted in the first court case against him in January.

“When Muslim groups saw the local police’s good behavior toward me, they approached Liberty and Model Town Police Stations in Lahore to take action against me,” he told the SLMP. “Police from both stations raided my house unlawfully.”

The pastor bears marks of the torture he underwent, while both his wife and eldest daughter have undergone psychological treatment after the attacks on Manzer in their home.

The first hearing in the case opened against Manzer, Masih and the other community members is scheduled for Oct. 19. Manzer said his faith has imbued him with a deep sense of charity toward Nawaz.

“We are praying for protection from God, and that God blesses Nawaz, because I am thinking of him,” said Manzer. “I don’t want to do anything to Nawaz, because I love him.”

Report from Compass Direct News