Islamic extremist rebel group hunts down underground church leader.

NAIROBI, Kenya, July 20 (Compass Direct News) – Muslim extremists early this morning killed a Christian convert in Mahadday Weyne, Somalia, 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Mogadishu.

Al Shabaab Islamist rebels shot Mohammed Sheikh Abdiraman to death at 7 a.m., eyewitnesses told Compass. They said the Islamic extremists appeared to have been hunting the convert from Islam, and when they found him they did not hesitate to shoot him.

The sources told Compass that Abdiraman was the leader of an underground “cell group” of Christians in Somalia.

“We are very sad about this incident, and we also are not safe,” one eyewitness said by telephone. “Pray for us.”

The sources were too distraught to share more details about Abdiraman’s death. Another eyewitness who requested anonymity said Abdiraman had been a Christian for 15 years. He is survived by two children, ages 15 and 10. His wife died three years ago due to illness.

Intent on “cleansing” Somalia of all Christians, al Shabaab militia are monitoring converts from Islam especially where Christian workers had provided medical aid, such as Johar, Jamame, Kismayo and Beledweyne, sources said. Mahadday Weyne, 22 kilometers (14 miles) north of Johar, is the site of a former Christian-run hospital.

Linked with Islamic extremist al Qaeda terrorists, al Shabaab rebels have mounted an armed effort to topple President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s Western-backed Transitional Federal Government with the intention of imposing sharia (Islamic law). The group is already enforcing sharia in large parts of southern Somalia that they control.

The militants reportedly beheaded seven Christians on July 10, and refugees from Somalia tell of other attacks. One refugee last year recounted an attack in Lower Juba, Somalia. Binti Ali Bilal, the 40-year-old mother of 10 children, was fetching firewood with her 23-year-old daughter, Asha Ibrahim Abdalla in April 2008 in an area called Yontoy when al Shabaab members and Muslim neighbors approached them. Yontoy is 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Kismayo.

For some time the local community had suspected that she and her family were Christians, Bilal told Compass. The group asked the women if they were Christians, and when they said they were, the group began beating her and her daughter, who was six months pregnant, Bilal said.

After raping them and holding them captive for five days, the Muslim extremists left them for dead, she said, and her husband found them. The baby born to her daughter, she told Compass, suffers from diseases related to the prenatal trauma.

Reuters reported on July 10 that al Shabaab militants beheaded seven people in Baidoa that day for being Christians and “spies.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


After nearly two and half years in jail, elderly men’s 10-year sentences overturned.

ISTANBUL, April 21 (Compass Direct News) – After more than two years in a Pakistani jail, two elderly Christian men convicted of “blasphemy” against the Quran were acquitted on Thursday (April 16) when a high court in Lahore overturned their 10-year sentence.

James Masih, 67, and Buta Masih, 72, were accused of burning pages from the Quran in October 2006 and were also tried under an anti-terrorism law because their actions were deemed to have created fear and panic. In a case that drew crowds of Islamic fanatics, they were convicted on Nov. 25, 2006 of blaspheming Islam’s sacred book.

The pair has claimed from the start that the blasphemy charges were fabricated due to a dispute over a plot of land that a Muslim neighbor wanted James Masih to sell.

“It happens many times, it is always a false story due to some other enmity,” said Father Yaqub Yousaf, the men’s parish priest. “Pastors and priests, we tell them that it is better not to speak on religion with the Muslims, not to say anything that can hurt them, so normally they don’t do that.”

After rumors erupted that the two men had burned pages of the Quran on Oct. 8, 2006, some 500 Muslims attempted to kill them. Police arrested the two Christians and held off the crowds, which stayed outside the police station through the night.

The Christian men launched an appeal soon after their conviction and have since remained in prison.

“I appeared in court 27 times during the appeal,” said Khalil Tahir Sindhu, their lawyer. “Most of the time the judges postponed the case, saying, ‘We will hear the case next time.’”

Sindhu told Compass that religious bias and public pressure led to the judge’s original decision to sentence the men and could have had much to do with the delays in hearing the appeal.

“At the last hearing [Dec. 15, 2008], the judge reserved judgment, which according to law has to be given within three months,” he said. “But it was over three months, so I went to court and told him, ‘These are old men and they are sick, so please announce the judgment.’”

James Masih was hospitalized three times during his internment, receiving treatment for a chest infection.

“Jail is totally different [in Pakistan], you hardly have proper food, and no facilities,” said Fr. Yousaf. Sources said both men were traumatized by their ordeal, an effect also felt keenly by their families, who were rarely able to visit.


Permanent Stigma

Articles 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code respectively prescribe life imprisonment for desecrating the Quran and death for insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Although the law has not been implemented to the full extent of capital punishment or life in prison since its introduction in 1986, there have been more than 20 deaths recorded in blasphemy-related violence.

Even after their acquittal and release, Sindhu said, the men will not be able to immediately return home.

“It is dangerous now, we will not send them to their home,” said Sindhu. “We will keep them away for one to two months until the situation changes. Anyone can kill them.”

Christians previously accused of blasphemy continued to experience prejudice and sometimes violence even after being cleared of the charges.

“It is difficult for the blasphemy accused to find work,” commented Wasim Muntizar from the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement. “Churches are afraid to help them, because fanatics won’t hesitate to kill the ‘blasphemer’ and attack the church.”

Although the families of James and Buta Masih remain excited at the prospect of the pair’s upcoming return home, Fr. Yousaf has urged them to keep their celebrations muted.

“They are excited, yes, but I told them not to express so strongly their joy about it,” he said. “I requested them to keep it secret, because it may not be safe – some of the Muslims may say the court has not taken the right decision. In the past people have been killed after being acquitted.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Would-be rapist instigates attack in response to charges leveled against him.

ISTANBUL, March 9 (Compass Direct News) – Gun and club attacks on a Presbyterian church and neighboring homes in the predominantly Christian area of a village in Pakistan last week killed one woman and left 16 people wounded.

Seeking revenge for a robbery complaint that a Christian filed against him, local Muslim Waseem Butt on March 2 led groups of his friends and family members in indiscriminate attacks aimed at the Christian community in Sangu-Wali, village, near Aroop town in Gujranwala district, reported advocacy group Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan (SLMP).

Groups of between five and 15 Muslims arriving from different directions attacked the church and area homes, said Sohail Johnson, head of SLMP. During the violence, 45-year-old Shakeela Bibi sustained bamboo rod blows to the head and died before reaching the hospital.

“The death of my wife is an irreparable loss to me and my children,” Manzoor Masih, Bibi’s husband, told SLMP. “I am concerned that Muslims are very strong here, we are poor, and we can not afford enmity with them. They will kill us too.”

Armed members of the attackers prevented ambulances from attending the scene by firing shots into the air, according to the SLMP report.

SLMP and the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) reported that the attack followed an attempt by a Christian to file a First Instance Report (FIR) with police against two Muslims for robbery and attempted rape.

Imran Masih, 18, accused Butt and Zeeshan Butt of stealing a cell phone and 3,000 rupees (US$40) before trying to sodomize him. Masih reported that he was on his way home from work on Feb. 26 when the two Muslims attacked him, and that he managed to escape before they could rape him.

“The Christians are poor and have no weight here,” said SLMP’s Johnson, so Muslims assume, “‘We are Kashmiri, we are Muslim, we are rich – they are sweepers, they are poor, they are weak, they are the minority, how are they going to move a [criminal charge] against us?’ This was in their mind.”

The mother-in-law of the woman who was killed suffered head and spinal injuries in the attack. Naziran Bibi, 80, remained in the hospital along with two others at press time. Another 10 victims, most suffering from head injuries, were treated overnight and released the next day.

Police arrested Waseem Butt shortly after the FIR was filed, and in the past few days they have also tracked down and jailed two other suspects. Widower Masih named more than 10 people in the FIR, accusing them of murder and trespassing. The other attackers have fled the village. Police told SLMP that they will continue to pursue the fugitives and bring them to justice.

Masih, however, has come under pressure to drop the case. He has received both threats and offers for financial settlement, an official with the National Commission for Justice and Peace said. Yousaf Benjamin of the commission said Muslims “see that it is very easy for a Muslim to kill a Christian and then offer some money to the family.”

“So Mr. Manzoor [Masih] has to be an example for the others,” Benjamin said. “He should not hesitate to go for legal procedures. He should not go for the money, he should go to the court and see the decision they make.”

Disregard for the rights and liberties of minority Christians in Pakistan is worsened by a culture of bribery, which often precludes the poor from fair treatment by authorities and recourse to legal protection. But investigating police officer Mohammad Riaz has promised that officers will ask for nothing and do their utmost to help the victims.

“It was very shocking to me that the culprits trespassed in Christians’ houses and attacked females of the family,” Riaz told CLAAS and SLMP investigators.

Report from Compass Direct News


Six months after attack, Muslim assailants still at large; weary congregation faces heat, rain.

GARISSA, Kenya, March 5 (Compass Direct News) – Six months after a gang of Muslim youths ruined a church building in this town in northern Kenya, Christians still worshipping in the sweltering heat of the open air say they feel disillusioned that officials have done nothing to punish the culprits or restore their structure.

On a sunny afternoon last Sept. 14, when angry Muslim youths threw more than 400 members of the Redeemed Gospel Church out of their church building, the Christians hoped they would be able to return to the ruins of their former structure. That hope is quickly giving way to anger, hopelessness and despair.

“After six months in the open, the church feels tired and cheated,” said pastor David Matolo. “We are fed up with the empty promises from the government administration.”

He said the church, which began worshipping in Garissa in early 2001 with only a dozen members, is fast shrinking.

“Our church membership has decreased, which is of great concern to me,” he told Compass. “The church thinks that the government has decided to buy time – almost every month I do book appointments with the relevant authorities, who on several occasions have given us a deaf ear.”

Since the attack, church members have been meeting at the town show grounds. Just a few miles from the Somali border, the site has few trees to protect the congregation from the scorching sun, with temperatures ranging from 92 to 104 degrees F (30 to 40 degrees C).

Asked why he thought government officials were reluctant to grant the church a permanent place of worship as promised, an irritated Matolo did not hesitate to reply.

“The administration has decided, ‘kutesa [inflict pain on us],’ always making promises that never come to pass,” he said. “At times the provincial commissioner deliberately decides not to take my phone calls. I have had a painful experience.”

Matolo said he has asked the administration either to allow the church to build a new structure on land lying idle near a police training college or to let them return to their original site. “We are ready for any eventuality,” he said. “We feel that the administration is not concerned about our spiritual welfare.”

Asked about the pastor’s complaints, provincial police officer Stephen Chelimo told Compass, “The issue at the moment is not within my docket, but wholly rests upon the provincial commissioner.”

But Provincial Commissioner Stephen Maingi said the onus rested on the district commissioner. “Let the district commissioner sort this issue with the pastor,” Maingi said.

District Commissioner Onyango Ogango, in turn, indicated the church itself was the source of problems.

“If the church is allowed to return to their original site, we will expect a fight to erupt with the Muslims,” Ogango said. “Earlier on, the church began very well during its initial stage of inception with controlled worship, but later it turned out to hold noisy prayers and loud songs.”

Further questioned about these allegations, however, Ogango said he would call the pastor to discuss a resolution. Even so, Matolo said previous contact with the district commissioner did not leave him with high expectations.

“Our district commissioner seemed to have no feelings for our predicament,” he said. “The faces of the congregation members speak a lot.”

A glance at the worshippers confirmed his appraisal. They looked weary and anxious, with impending April rains expected to add to the indignity of their situation. Matolo said his congregation feels that soon it will be difficult to worship at all.

Even a temporary home did not appear to be forthcoming. The pastor said their request for a site near the provincial commissioner’s residence was dismissed on the grounds that it would create a security concern.


Radical Islamic Influence

Tensions between Christians and the Muslim-majority population in the semi-desert town of 20,000 people began in June 2007, when Muslims built a mosque too close to the church building – only three meters separated the two structures.

Matolo said pleas to District Commissioner Ogango did nothing to reverse the encroachment of Muslim worshippers.

Land issues alone have not been responsible for tensions in the area. The Rev. Ibrahim Kamwaro, chairman of the Pastors’ Fellowship in Garissa, said Matolo had offended Muslims when he preached to a lame Muslim man. Muslims were said to be upset that the pastor persuaded the disabled man to stop going to the mosque and instead join his church.

Matolo’s alleged promise to the disabled man of a better life offended area Muslims, Rev. Kamwaro said.

Christians feel increasingly hunted and haunted as the spread of Islamic extremism is fast gaining ground in this town, located about 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Nairobi, the capital. In neighboring Somalia, newly elected President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed on Feb. 28 offered the introduction of sharia (Islamic law) in exchange for a truce with a rebel extremist group said to have ties to al Qaeda, al Shabaab; the rebels said they would keep fighting. Many fear that Muslim youths in this lawless part of Kenya will be tempted to adopt the radical, uncompromising posture of the fighters.

To date, the gang of more than 50 Muslim youths who attacked worshippers and brought their church to ruins have not been apprehended. Members of the congregation feel justice is increasingly elusive.

In Garissa, Muslims restrict churches in other ways. Christians are not allowed to pray, sing or use musical instruments in rented homes owned by Muslims. No teaching of Christian Religious Education in schools is allowed; only Islamic Religious Knowledge is taught.

Garissa has more than 15 Christian denominations, including the East Africa Pentecostal Church, the Redeemed Gospel Church, the Anglican Church, Deliverance Church, Full Gospel Churches of Kenya and the African Inland Church.

Report from Compass Direct News


Christians meet with Al-Maliki, ask for troops and provincial voting rights.

ISTANBUL, October 19 (Compass Direct News) – Amid escalating violence against Christians, Iraqi church leaders have appealed directly to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for increased efforts to curb the continuing attacks In Mosul.

In a meeting with Al-Maliki, 10 heads of Iraqi churches urged the prime minister on Thursday (Oct. 16) to send the army to Mosul to help the approximately 1,000 police that were dispatched this past week to keep watch over Christians in the city.

Church leaders said police efforts to curb violence were insufficient and more needed to be done to stabilize the city, from which an estimated 1,500 families have fled following recent killings of Christians.

Al-Maliki assured the church heads that he would do whatever was in his power in cooperation with them and that he hoped to send soldiers to Mosul “immediately,” said Shlemon Warduni, an auxiliary bishop of the Chaldean Church in Bagdad present at the meeting.

“He is upset and he’s sorry for what is happening,” said Warduni. “He is going to do whatever he can in cooperation with those who work with him.”

Members of the Christian communities believe that the police already sent to the city have made little difference and more forces are needed to ensure peace.

“I hope they will follow it up with more action; that they will continue as they said themselves until there is peace,” said Warduni. “We firmly ask for the army to be sent in the hopes that peace will come back and people will return to their homes.”

Father Basher Warda of St. Peter’s Seminary, spoke by phone to Compass with similar urgency. Government officials have visited Mosul and the victims promising to help, “but there is nothing,” said Fr. Warda. “A few initiatives here and there, but they cannot correspond to the whole crisis.”

He pointed out how no military spokesman has said Mosul is now secure, leaving only the government’s promises.

“The whole system needs to be reconsidered,” Fr. Warda said. “In a crisis the government should not take any holiday or rest, but they said, ‘We will see what to do in the coming days.’ But it’s not a matter of coming days; it’s a matter of families who have left everything behind.”

Families are still fleeing as threats, bombings and deaths persist in Mosul, according to Fr. Warda. He said 20 percent of the displaced people he has spoken to said they had been directly threatened before they fled Mosul. Others described how they witnessed threats against their neighbors, “the killing of a man, or a father and his son,” in their streets.

“These [accounts] … show there is something planned to evacuate Christians form Mosul,” he said. “They say: ‘We cannot risk it.’”


Change in Parliament

It is not clear who is behind the attacks on Christians in Mosul, where U.S. and Iraqi forces have been conducting operations against the Sunni militant group al-Qaeda.

The displacement of Christians follows comes on the heels of an Iraqi parliamentary vote to drop a clause in its new provincial election law, Article 50, that protected rights of minorities by guaranteeing their representation on provincial councils.

The change earlier this month sparked protests from Christians in Mosul, which some believe have fueled the attacks on the Christian community.

In their meeting with Al-Maliki, church community leaders also pleaded for the re-instatement of Article 50. Al-Maliki assured them he would bring it to the attention of Parliament in the next session, Warduni said.

Although unwilling to draw direct links to the demonstrations, Fr. Warda did tell Compass that he thought the attacks were coordinated.

“Maybe it’s a coincidence, and maybe it’s an occasion for violence,” said Fr. Warda. “But whatever the reason was, it looks like there was a plan [for the violence]. We cannot say it’s just a coincidence, it happened in such a quick way.”

He called the effort to clear Christians out of Mosul, a “massive task.”

“We are talking about 1,700 families who have fled in nine days,” he said.

In the wake of attacks on churches and individuals, Iraqi Christians have fled to surrounding villages leaving homes and businesses.

Some of Mosul’s refugees have sought shelter across the border in either Turkey or Syria. It is the small and unprepared villages surrounding the city, however, that have borne the brunt of the displacement, according to Fr. Warda.

For now, the primary concern of church leaders is the safe return of those who have fled.

“[Mosul is] their history, their heritage, memories are there. Every beautiful memory is there. We have to do something,” said Fr. Warda. He said those he spoke to were too afraid to go back to their homes and did not know if they could trust the government for their security.

Asked whether he thought Mosul would lose its entire Christian population, Fr. Warda said, “I don’t care to think about it, because it would be a tragedy for all people. The choices are so limited. My concern now is for Christians who are leaving.”

Although “hopeful” about the situation of Mosul’s Christian community, Warduni did not hesitate to criticize what he calls the “silence” of the international community on the human rights of Iraq’s Christian community.

“I want to tell the developed world that from the outset no one has said anything,” he said. “No one is talking about the rights of Christians and minorities in Iraq. We are waiting for support from the outside, at least as human beings not only as Christians.”

Report from Compass Direct News