COLOMBIA: FAMILY OF KIDNAPPED PASTOR FLEE HOME


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

COLOMBIA: SIX MONTHS LATER, PASTOR STILL MISSING


The Rev. William Reyes’ wife awaits word, fears for safety of her children.

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, March 23 (Compass Direct News) – Six months after the disappearance in Colombia of the Rev. William Reyes of Maicao, La Guajira, no one knows what happened to him.

This week marks six months of agonizing uncertainty for the family of Rev. Reyes. On Sept. 25, 2008, the pastor of Light and Truth Inter-American Church disappeared en route home from a ministers’ meeting in Valledupar, a city in the neighboring department (state) of Cesar.

Family members and friends fear that guerrilla fighters kidnapped the veteran minister; they have not seen or heard from him since his disappearance. Rev. Reyes and colleagues in the Fraternity of Evangelical Pastors of Maicao had received repeated threats from illegal armed groups operating in the La Guajira peninsula since March 2008.

Guerrillas or their paramilitary rivals may have assassinated Rev. Reyes and disposed of his body, and some observers even speculate that he may have fallen victim to rogue units of the Colombian army that murder innocent civilians to inflate the body counts of “terrorists” killed in battle.

But nobody knows for sure what happened to the 41-year-old father of three – William, 19, Luz Nelly, 17 and Estefania, 9. His wife and children live with gnawing fear and uncertainty.

“Some days I feel so desperate, I don’t know what to do,” Idia Miranda de Reyes told Compass by telephone from her home in Maicao. Through tears, she added, “My daughter Estefania helps me stay strong. She tells me, ‘Mama, don’t cry,’ remember that God is with us.’”

Tensions heightened for the Reyes family on Feb. 19, when armed men entered another Maicao church just a few blocks from the Light and Truth Church while worship was in progress and forcibly removed a woman from the congregation. The pastor of the church refused to disclose the victim’s identity or discuss the circumstances of her disappearance, citing concerns for the safety of the woman, her family and other members of his congregation.

Such caution is understandable in Colombia, a country that suffers the highest incidence of kidnapping in the Western Hemisphere and a homicide rate 11 times greater than in the United States.

Six months of silence in regard to her husband’s fate, coupled with this new threat to her community, has made Idia Miranda Reyes justifiably fearful for her family’s safety. Moreover, she now faces financial hardship. The Truth and Light Church kept her on the payroll until Feb. 15, when the congregation appointed a new minister to replace her husband.

She is considering a move to another city to be near her extended family but wants to wait until her daughter, Luz Nelly, graduates from high school this spring. For now, the family survives on donations from friends and church members.

“We know that God is doing something through this,” Reyes said. “I don’t understand what that is, but I’m going to keep trusting Him.”

The Reyes family has received moral support from the Christian community in Colombia. On Oct. 4, 2008, thousands of marchers from Maicao’s churches held a public demonstration to protest the disappearance of Rev. Reyes and demand his immediate release.

The march produced the only clue to his fate. Following the demonstration, the minister’s wallet turned up inside the church building with his identification documents intact. His wife took that as a message that he was still alive and that his captors would be contacting her soon.

That has not happened. But such delay tactics are not unusual in Colombian kidnapping cases, according to Michael Joseph of the Commission for Restoration, Life and Peace of the Evangelical Council of Colombia.

“It’s disconcerting that we have received no ransom request,” Joseph said. “It means he could have been killed. On the other hand, we do know that Rev. Reyes had been receiving extortion threats by phone and text message from months before he disappeared. So really it’s anybody’s guess.”

Joseph traveled to Maicao last October to interview Rev. Reyes’ wife on behalf of the commission, which then mounted a public letter-writing campaign together with Justapaz, a Mennonite Church-affiliated organization based in Bogotá. Concerned citizens petitioned the office of Attorney General Dr. Mario Iguarán to “take all steps necessary to locate Pastor Reyes and to protect his family,” and the organizations are still urging people worldwide to write to the Colombian official. A model letter can be found at http://www.justapaz.org/spip.php?article114 .

At press time, law enforcement authorities had not responded to the petition, but this is not unusual for kidnapping cases in Colombia. The attorney general’s office reportedly faces a backlog of 1 million unsolved homicides, abductions and other serious crimes.

General lawlessness in some areas of the country means that Colombians often face retaliation from the same criminals who murder or kidnap loved ones, should they dare report such crimes to the authorities as Rev. Reyes’ wife has done. She lives in fear as she awaits word of her missing husband.

“I have three kids, and I am very fearful for them,” she said. “If it were not for the solace the Lord gives me, I would go crazy. I am trusting in God alone.”

Report from Compass Direct News

 

 

TURKEY: MUSLIM SENTENCED FOR STABBING PRIEST IN IZMIR


Assailant influenced by TV series defaming Christian missionaries.

ISTANBUL, January 12 (Compass Direct News) – A judge in Turkey sentenced a 19-year-old Muslim to four-and-a-half years in prison on Jan. 5 for stabbing a Catholic priest in the coastal city of Izmir in December 2007.

Ramazan Bay, then 17, had met with Father Adriano Franchini, a 65-year-old Italian and long-term resident of Turkey, after expressing an interest in Christianity following mass at St. Anthony church. During their conversation, Bay became irritated and pulled out a knife, stabbing the priest in the stomach.

Fr. Franchini was hospitalized but released the next day as his wounds were not critical.

Bay, originally from Balikesir 90 miles north of Izmir, reportedly said he was influenced by an episode of the TV serial drama “Kurtlar Vadisi” (“Valley of the Wolves”). The series caricatures Christian missionaries as political “infiltrators” who pay poor families to convert to Christianity.

“Valley of the Wolves” also played a role in a foiled attack on another Christian leader in December 2007. Murat Tabuk reportedly admitted under police interrogation that the popular ultra-nationalist show had inspired him to plan the murder of Antalya pastor Ramazan Arkan. The plan was thwarted, with the pastor receiving armed police protection and Antalya’s anti-terrorism police bureau ordering plainclothes guards to accompany him.

Together with 20 other Protestant church leaders, Arkan on Dec. 3, 2007 filed a formal complaint with the Istanbul State Prosecutor’s office protesting “Valley of the Wolves” for “presenting them as a terrorist group and broadcasting scenes making them an open target.”

The series has portrayed Christians as selling body parts, being involved in mafia activities and prostitution and working as enemies of society in order to spread the Christian faith.

“The result has been innumerable, direct threats, attacks against places of worship and eventually, the live slaughter of three innocent Christians in Malatya,” the complaint stated.

The Protestant leaders demanded that Show TV and the producers of “Valley of the Wolves” be prosecuted under sections 115, 214, 215, 216 and 288 of the Turkish penal code for spreading false information and inciting violence against Christians.

The past three years saw six separate attacks on priests working across the country, the most serious of which resulted in the death of Father Andreas Santoro in Trabzon. As with Fr. Franchini, many of the attacks were coupled with accusations of subversion and “proselytizing.”

Although a secular republic, Turkey has a strong nationalistic identity of which Islam is an integral part.

Television shows such as “Valley of the Wolves” may not be the norm, but the recent publication of a state high school textbook in which “missionary activity” is also characterized as destructive and dangerous has raised questions about Turkey’s commitment to addressing prejudice and discrimination.

“While there is a general attitude [of antipathy], I think that the state feeds into it and propagates it,” said a spokesperson for the Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey (TEK). “If the State took a more accepting and more tolerant attitude I think the general attitude would change too.”

At the end of 2007 TEK issued a summery of the human rights violations that their members had suffered that year. As part of a concluding appeal they urged the state to stop an “indoctrination campaign” aimed at vilifying the Christian community.

TEK will soon release its rights violations summery for 2008, and it is likely that a similar plea will be made.

“There is police protection, and they have caught some people,” the TEK spokesperson said. “There is an active part of the state trying to prevent things, but the way it is done very much depends on the situation and how at that moment the government is feeling as far as putting across a diplomatic and political statement. There is hypocrisy in it.”

A survey carried out in 2005 by the Pew Global Attitudes Project also suggested a distinctly negative attitude towards Christians among Turks, with 63 percent describing their view of Christians as “unfavorable,” the highest rate among countries surveyed.

Niyazi Oktem, professor of law at Bilgi University and president of a prominent inter-faith organization in Turkey called the Intercultural Dialogue Platform, said that while the government could do more to secure religious freedom, he would not characterize Turkish sentiment towards Christians as negative.

“I can say that general Turkish feeling towards the Christian religion is not hostile,” said Oktem. “There could be, of course, some exceptions, but this is also the case in Christian countries towards Islam.”

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: TALIBAN BOMBS CATHOLIC GIRLS’ HIGH SCHOOL


Blast claims no victims but reflects radical Islam’s tightened grip.

ISTANBUL, October 14 (Compass Direct News) – Taliban militants bombed a Catholic-run girls’ school in Pakistan’s war-torn Swat Valley as part of a larger effort to subvert women’s status in society through Islamic law, locals say.

On Wednesday (Oct. 8) the Islamic terrorist group bombed the Convent Girls’ School in Sangota, run by the Presentation Sisters, a Catholic religious order that has opened girls’ schools around the world. Militants have threatened the school frequently for offering education to females.

No one was injured in the attack. The school had closed a few months earlier due to deteriorating security in Swat, a source told Compass. Students and faculty left in July following threats.

“The Taliban said, ‘We have asked you so many times to close down the school but you are not listening. We are going to set it on fire,’” said Yousef Benjamin, a Lahore-based peace activist.

Militants had already attacked or blown up and forced the closure of many girls’ schools in Swat, said Cecil Chaudhry, executive secretary of All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. They told the nuns they would destroy their school if it weren’t closed. Following the bombing the militants ransacked the school’s adjoining convent.

The high school enrolled approximately 1,000 female students, nearly 95 percent of them Muslim.

The Santoga school has faced threats from Islamic extremists before. It closed its doors in September 2007 after received a threatening letter from extremists that demanded all teachers and female students wear the burqa. The letter claimed the faculty was working to convert Muslim students to Christianity.

The Taliban has not singled out the school for its Christian ties but instead wants to clamp down on all girls’ schools, which they believe encourage female participation in society, government officials claim.

In the last two years it has indiscriminately targeted more than 150 public and private girls’ schools in northwest Pakistan.

“For them it doesn’t matter if it’s a Christian school, government school or a private school,” Benjamin said. “Last week I was in [the northern city of] Peshawer and the Taliban told women to not even go to the market.”

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1994 to 2001. They severely curtailed women’s rights, barring females from education, employment or traveling outside of their homes without a male relative.

“A few years ago the Taliban government in Afghanistan did not even allow women to be seen outside their houses, and that’s the version of Islam the Taliban promotes,” Chaudhry said.

Located near the Afghanistan border, Swat has been a flash point between the country’s security forces and Islamic militants. The area used to be a thriving tourist haven with hotels and a ski resort but came under complete control of Taliban militants in September 2007.

Government security forces cleared out the Taliban from the valley in recent months, but the area came under their control once again three weeks ago.

With their re-asserted control, the Taliban has forced all Swat residents to live according to their strict lifestyle guidelines, whether Muslim or Christian.

Men have grown beards and adopted Islamic dress. Women are required to wear burqas and sit in the back seat of their own vehicles. Advertisements cannot feature pictures of women.

“The Taliban wants to create a culture of terror, insecurity and they want to impose a self-created system of sharia [Islamic law] inspired by the system in Afghanistan,” said Shabhaz Bhatti, a National Assembly member from the Punjab province and chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance.

The 70 or so Christian families scattered in the valley occupy the lower class, working as laborers and street sweepers.

Since July 2007, militants and followers of Muslim cleric Maulana Fazlullah have pressured the tiny community of Christians to accept Islamic law.

 

Political Motives

Islamic militants have stepped up attacks across Pakistan in recent weeks. Last Thursday (Oct. 9) a suicide bomber injured eight people in an attack on an Islamabad police station. In September another suicide bomber killed 50 people at the Marriott Hotel.

Motivations for the surge in attacks could be political as well as religious. Pakistani forces have been cracking down on militants in the nation’s tribal areas as the government has resolved to fight domestic terrorism.

The Pakistani military launched a three-week-long air strike operation in Afghanistan in August and killed more than 400 Taliban militants. Pakistan declared a cease-fire in September during Ramadan.

The militant attacks could also be in retaliation to recent U.S. bombings against Taliban targets within Pakistan, a source told Compass.

Inter-Services Intelligence Director Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha told Pakistan’s parliament on Wednesday (Oct. 8) that the Taliban had gained complete control over certain districts of the country. The military has attempted to regain control in a bitter struggle that has claimed the lives of 1,368 troops since 2001, according to the Pakistani Daily Times.

While Christians are worried about their safety, they stress that the Taliban is a threat to all Pakistanis, regardless of religion.

They urged fellow Christians to pray for the surging violence within the country to ebb.

“We ask a special prayer for peace in our country and that the terrorist elements who believe in violence would not succeed in killing innocent people,” Bhatti said. “Pray for Pakistani Christians – may God protect them and give them courage to remain strong in their faith and witness.”

Report from Compass Direct News

ERITREA: CHRISTIAN STUDENTS SHUT INTO SHIPPING CONTAINERS


Eight believers punished for objecting to officials’ burning of 1,500 Bibles.

LOS ANGELES, August 11 (Compass Direct News) – Authorities on Tuesday (August 5) locked up eight high school students at a military training school in metal shipping containers for objecting to the burning of hundreds of Bibles, sources told Compass.

The eight male students from the Sawa Defense Training Centre in Sawa, near Eritrea’s border with Sudan, were incarcerated after military authorities confiscated more than 1,500 personal Bibles from new students arriving for the 2008-2009 academic year.

The eight students objected when military officials began burning the Bibles.

“During the time that the Bibles were set on fire, the chief commander of Sawa, Col. Debesai Ghide, gave a warning to all the students by telling them that Sawa is a place of patriotism, not a place for ‘Pentes’ [Pentecostals],’” said one source. “Eight male students to whom God gave boldness to speak against the burning of the Bibles have been taken into custody in one of the metal shipping containers that the military at Sawa uses as prison cells for Christians who have been found practicing their faith in the center.”

Reading the Bible privately, discussing Christian faith with other students, praying before or after meals alone or in groups and possessing the Bible or any other Christian literature is forbidden at the center, the source said. Students involved in such activities are liable to imprisonment and severe military punishment.

Military service is mandatory in Eritrea, and Eritrean students are required to attend training at military centers such as the one at Sawa in order to graduate from high school. They receive vocational training as well as instruction in academic subjects at the Sawa defense center, and then either go on to higher education or are conscripted into the military.

On January 4, 2007, military commanders at the Sawa center conducted what they termed a “random check-up on the activities of Christian extremists” among student conscripts. While searching the conscripts’ personal effects, military personnel found 250 Bibles that the Christian students were using in their personal devotional time.

After burning all the Bibles before the entire military camp, the commanders arrested 35 of the teenage students and ordered them subjected to severe military punishment, including physical torture.

Eritrean officials have routinely denied religious oppression exists in the country, saying the government is only enforcing laws against unregistered churches. In May 2002, Eritrea closed down all independent religious groups not operating under the umbrella of the government-sanctioned Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim faiths.

The government has denied all efforts by independent Protestant churches to register, and subsequently the Orthodox Church and its flourishing renewal movement has also been subject to government raids. People caught worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even in private homes, suffer arrest, torture and severe pressure to deny their faith.

Eritrea has continued to dismiss accusations of religious repression, with presidential aide Yemane Ghebremeskel reportedly saying the country has a secular constitution and long tradition of religious history.

The U.S. Department of State notes in its 2007 International Religious Freedom Report that Eritrea has not implemented its 1997 constitution providing for religious freedom. The state department last year designated Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern, a place on the list of the worst violators of religious freedom it has held since 2004.

More than 2,000 Christians, including pastors and priests from both Protestant and Orthodox churches, are now under arrest in police stations, military camps and jails all across Eritrea because of their religious beliefs. Although many have been incarcerated for months or even years, none have been charged officially or given access to judicial process.

In December 2006 the government of Eritrea wrested control of finances and personnel from the Eritrean Orthodox Church. The church has been under de facto government control since Patriarch Abune Antonios was placed under house arrest and then divested of his ecclesiastical authority in August 2005.

Report from Compass Direct News