Maher El-Gohary and daughter apply for asylum in France.
ISTANBUL, April 21 (CDN) — A father and daughter who fled Egypt to Syria after spending two and a half years in hiding for becoming Christians have arrived in France and yesterday applied for asylum there, human rights advocates said.
Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, 58, had become the target of Islamic ill will in Egypt after he tried to change the religious affiliation on his national identification card from Muslim to Christian. He and his daughter, 17-year-old Dina Mo’otahssem, arrived in Paris from Syria on March 30 after having fled to Damascus on Feb. 22 in the wake of the revolution in Egypt that deposed then-President Hosni Mubarak.
The Jan. 25-Feb. 11 protests in Egypt also weakened the Ministry of the Interior, an agency that had harassed El-Gohary and prevented him from leaving the country.
El-Gohary had fled to Syria because it was both the fastest and the easiest way to get out of Egypt, but he said he also feared Islamic opposition to converts in Syria and growing political unrest in Damascus.
“When we got to the French embassy in Syria, we were so scared because of what was happening in Syria at the time,” he said.
It took him more than a month to secure a visa to leave Syria. Previously in Egypt, he had been able to leave because he had received a court decision ordering the Ministry of the Interior to allow him to leave the country; taking advantage of the confusion gripping Egyptian government agencies in the wake of the anti-Mubarak protests, he left with his daughter.
Eventually El-Gohary and his daughter hope to gain a visa to the United States and then immigrate.
Despite their newfound safety, El-Gohary and Dina are still shaken by their ordeal. They said they are afraid that a Muslim extremist in France could seek them out and attack them. They also have unresolved medical issues from the physical stress of two years of hiding and from not being able to receive proper medical care during that time.
On Monday (April 18), El-Gohary went to the Embassy of the United States in Paris to apply for U.S. asylum as well. According to a Coptic activist who requested anonymity, the embassy advised El-Gohary that his best option was for his wife, who lives in the United States, to apply for a visa to allow him to enter the country. El-Gohary is also applying for a tourist visa to the United States. Human rights activists have advised El-Gohary to stay in France while he applies for asylum rather than go to the United States on a tourist visa, which may leave him financially exposed and hinder his immigration efforts.
Meantime, El-Gohary’s application for asylum in France qualifies him for an automatic three-month extension on his visa to France, which was set to expire at the end of the month. The extension can be renewed as long as his case is unresolved. It also qualifies him for certain government benefits.
‘Miracle from God’
El-Gohary and his daughter were forced into hiding in August 2008 immediately after he filed his lawsuit to change his ID card’s religious designation. The suit caused uproar in a country where, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 84 percent of Muslims in Egypt believe those who leave Islam should be executed.
El-Gohary filed the suit, he said, because he wanted to spare his daughter the persecution he suffered when he became a Christian in his 20s. In theory, the religion listed on his ID card would be used to determine the religion listed on Dina’s.
In Egypt, it is illegal for adults not to have a national ID card, and it is nearly impossible to survive without one. It is necessary for opening a bank account, renting an apartment and obtaining medical care. Also, being identified as a Muslim in Egypt makes one subject to Islamic civil law, which would have prevented Dina from marrying someone identified as a Christian.
Freedom of religion, including the right to change one’s religion, is guaranteed in Egypt by law. But in practice, while it is easy for Christian converts to Islam to change the religion listed on their ID cards, it is impossible for a Muslim convert to Christianity to do the same.
For the time that El-Gohary and his daughter were on the run, they lived a marginal existence, moving from one safe house to another about once every month. On different occasions, he and Dina were attacked. On one occasion, El-Gohary said, Dina had acid thrown on her. On another, he said someone came at him with a knife.
El-Gohary called his escape from Egypt a “miracle from God,” but when he arrived in Syria he was quickly faced with the reality that he was alone in a country in which he had no support network and felt almost as unsafe as he did in Egypt. Also, his expectation that he would be able to quickly obtain a visa to the United States proved false. Frustrated by what he described as a cold reception at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, he began to look for any country in Europe that would give him an
On advice of the Vatican Embassy in Syria, El-Gohary went to the French Embassy in Damascus, which issued a short-term visa the same day.
“I really appreciate what the French ambassador did for us,” El-Gohary said. “The French saved us.”
El-Gohary was able to get to France with the support of Egyptian Christians and advocacy groups, most notably the United Copts of Great Britain. Dr. Ibrahim Habib, a Copt and the chairman of the group, said his organization arranged accommodation for El-Gohary and Dina with an Egyptian Christian in France. Habib said El-Gohary, motivated by fear, left for France unprepared.
“He was going to France without knowing anybody at all,” Habib said. “He was just going to land in the airport and start thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’”
Report from Compass Direct News
After painful effort to change ID card, Christians flee – to similar fate.
CAIRO, Egypt, March 21 (CDN) — When the plane carrying Maher El-Gohary and his daughter, Dina Mo’otahssem, took off from Cairo International Airport last month, they both wept with joy. After spending two-and-a-half years in hiding for leaving Islam to become Christians, they were elated by their newfound freedom.
They also felt secure that once they arrived in Syria, they would quickly obtain visas to the United States and start a new life. That hope soon proved unfounded.
After spending more than a week and a half unable to obtain a visa to the United States or to any country in Europe, they realized they may have traded in the reality of being prisoners in their own country for being refugees in another. And as El-Gohary watches the weeks pass and his resources dwindle, he said the stress is almost unbearable.
“I feel like we’ve stepped out of a prison cell and into a fire,” he said. “We are in very, very bad conditions … My daughter and I divide the bottles of water to live, because there is no income.”
Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, 58, gained notoriety in Egypt after he sued the government in August 2008 to gain the right to change the religion listed on his state-issued ID card from Islam to Christianity. In Egypt, ID cards play a critical role in a person’s life, being used for everything from opening a bank account and renting an apartment to receiving medical care.
The listed religious affiliation, whether a card-holder subscribes to it or not, also determines whether the person is subject to Islamic civil law. The listed religious designation determines what state-mandated religion classes minors are required to take in school. El-Gohary said he filed the suit so his daughter, then 15, could opt out of the religious classes and would not be subject to the persecution he suffered when he became a Christian in his 20s.
It is a crime punishable by imprisonment to have no ID card in Egypt.
The suit sparked outrage throughout Egypt. Both El-Gohary and his daughter were publicly branded apostates in a country where 84 percent of Muslims think those who leave Islam should be executed, according to a study released by the Pew Research Center in December. The same month the suit was filed in 2008, El-Gohary and his daughter were forced into hiding.
For two-and-a-half years, El-Gohary shifted back and forth among several apartments in Cairo and Alexandria, usually once every month. Even in hiding, the two were harassed regularly by Egypt’s dreaded State Security Intelligence service (SSI) and assaulted repeatedly by others, including someone pouring acid on Dina, El-Gohary said.
While in hiding, El-Gohary tried repeatedly to leave Egypt, but officials at the Ministry of the Interior blocked him at every attempt. On at least one occasion, they seized his passport. In December 2010, after a long legal battle, El-Gohary got a court decision ordering the Ministry of the Interior to allow him to travel, but he said it still took several weeks for the government to comply with the order; the Jan. 25-Feb. 11 revolution didn’t hurt, El-Gohary said.
Out of Egypt
After the national demonstrations that led to the removal of both President Hosni Mubarak and Minister of Interior Habib Al-Adly, El-Gohary and his daughter went to Cairo International Airport on Feb. 22 to leave the county. They came prepared with their newly issued passports, the court order and myriad documents to prove they had the right to leave the country. Even so, authorities took the two aside for interrogation at the airport.
“My daughter and I went to the counter of the airport to the manager, then they took us to the SSI,” El-Gohary said. “We spent an hour talking to an officer trying to tell him, ‘We spent ages during Habib Al-Adly’s time, and even now after the revolution, we don’t have the right to leave?’”
According to El-Gohary, the guard asked him if he really wanted to leave the country.
“Yes,” El-Gohary replied. “I have a court order against Al-Adly, and I have the right to leave and the freedom to travel outside the country.” As if to add insult to more than two years of injury, the SSI officers told El-Gohary that Egypt was “their country” and to “come back anytime you want to.”
El-Gohary credits the revolution as the reason he was allowed to leave Egypt, saying it was a miracle “from God.”
They chose to go to Syria because Egyptian citizens are not required to have visas to visit there. After contact with a U.S. organization that concentrates on religious freedom, El-Gohary expected it would be easy to get a visa to the United States, where his wife lives. But he said he has been unable to obtain an entry visa there or to any country where he will feel safe. He went to a U.N. office in Syria seeking assistance; he was given an appointment to come back on April 20.
“I wasn’t expecting, after all this suffering and all these years, that…” El-Gohary said, cutting himself off. “The series of persecution is not finished.”
Although they don’t live under the same type of threats as they did in Egypt, El-Gohary and Dina now live in an apartment where they still watch everything they say and everyone with whom they talk. They still spend much of their time trapped between the four walls of their apartment because Syria, El-Gohary said, is a country where converts to Christianity from Islam are persecuted.
“The danger is still there,” El-Gohary said. “We don’t get out of the house. We don’t meet people. We don’t tell people what we are doing or talk to them about our situation. Because we don’t want someone to say, ‘Why are you applying to the U.N.?’ There are still a lot of enemies.”
Dina, now 17, said that although leaving Egypt was “like a miracle,” she is devastated by the prospect of having to spend more time with her life on hold. She said she is just as scared in Syria as she was in Egypt.
“We’re really, really tired of all this suffering,” she said. “I’ve lost two years of my life. I want to finish school.”
Muslim converts to Christianity in Syria were sometimes forced to leave their place of residence due to societal pressure last year, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report. While there is no official state religion in Syria, the constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic law is a principal source of legislation.
With strict monitoring and curtailing of militant Islam, the government in Syria has long been considered a moderate regime. The government’s fear of violent responses by Islamic extremists to increasing conversions to Christianity, however, was at least partially responsible for the closing of six buildings where Christians were meeting last year, according to Christian support organization Open Doors. Noting that several Christians were arrested and interrogated in 2010, the organization’s World Watch List bumped Syria’s ranking up to 38th place among nations in which persecution of Christians takes place, from position 41 the previous year.
Syria is 90 percent Muslim, and 6.34 percent of its 22.5 million population is Christian, according to Operation World.
Though El-Gohary and his daughter have a dark outlook on their current situation, they are still grateful.
“Without God’s love, we would have been dead by now,” El-Gohary said. “Getting out of Egypt itself was a victory from God.”
Dina said she also is thankful, but that as she gets older she is becoming increasingly preoccupied by one wish.
“I want to get out so I can finish my studies,” she said. “I want to go into a church and out of a church without being scared of being killed.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Terrorist threat in Iraq emerges at importune moment for Copts.
CAIRO, Egypt, November 22 (CDN) — As bombings and other attacks continue against Christians in Iraq, Christians in Egypt have gathered to pray and plan for their own safety.
When a group of Islamic extremists on Oct. 31 burst into Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad during evening mass and began spraying the sanctuary with gunfire, the militant organization that took responsibility said Christians in Egypt also would be targeted if its demands were not met. Taking more than 100 congregants hostage, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) called a television station and stated that the assault came in response to the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt allegedly holding two Coptic women against their will who, the ISI and some others believe, converted to Islam.
The group issued a 48-hour deadline for the release of the women, and when the deadline passed it issued a statement that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.” The statement later added ominously, “We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood.”
In the attack and rescue attempt that followed, 58 people were reportedly killed. A week and a half later, Islamic extremists killed four people in a series of coordinated attacks against Christians in Baghdad and its surrounding suburbs. The attackers launched mortar rounds and planted makeshift bombs outside Christian homes and one church. At least one attack was made against the family members of one of the victims of the original attack.
On Nov. 15, gunmen entered two Christian homes in Mosul and killed two men in the house. The next day, a Christian and his 6-year-old daughter were killed in a car bombing. At the same time, another bomb exploded outside the home of a Christian, damaging the house but leaving the residents uninjured, according to CNN.
The threats against Christians caused a flurry of activity at churches in Egypt. A 35-year-old Protestant who declined to give her name said Christians in Cairo have unified in prayer meetings about the threats. An SMS text message was sent out through prayer networks asking people to meet, she said.
“I know people are praying now,” she said. “We have times for our people to pray, so all of us are praying.”
Security has increased at churches throughout Egypt. In Cairo, where the presence of white-uniformed security police is ubiquitous, the number of uniformed and plain-clothes officers has doubled at churches. High-ranking police officers shuffle from one house of worship to another monitoring subordinates and enforcing new security rules. At times, parking on the same side of the street as a church building, or even driving by one, has been forbidden.
On Nov. 8, leaders from the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches gathered to discuss how to improve security at churches. According to the leaders of several churches, the government asked pastors to cancel unessential large-scale public meetings. Pope Shenouda III canceled a celebration to commemorate the 39th anniversary of his installment as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Guests at a recent outdoor Christmas bazaar and a subsequent festival at the All-Saints Cathedral in Zamalek
were greeted with pat-downs, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.
Some church leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security improvements are haphazard, while others say they are genuine efforts to ensure the safety of Christians.
Most Christians in Cairo avoided answering any questions about the attacks in Iraq or the threats made against Christians in Egypt. But Deliah el-Sowkary, a Coptic Orthodox woman in her 20s, said she hoped no attacks would happen in her country. Noting the security present at all churches, still she said she is not that worried.
“I think it’s different in Egypt than in Baghdad, it’s more safe here,” El-Sowkary said.
Almost a week after the bombings, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued a statement through the state-run MENA news agency that the Copts would be protected from attacks.
“The president affirmed his extensive solicitude for the protection of the nation’s sons, Muslims and Copts, from the forces of terrorism and extremism,” the agency stated.
The security concerns came against a backdrop of heightened tensions between the Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority over the past few months, with weeks of protests against Christians in general and against Shenouda specifically. The protests, held mostly in Alexandria, ended two weeks ago.
The tension started after the wife of a Coptic priest, Camilia Zakher, disappeared in July. According to government sources and published media reports, Zakher left her home after a heated argument with her husband. But Coptic protestors, who started gathering to protest at churches after Zakher disappeared, claimed she had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.
Soon after, Egypt’s State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers found her at the home of a friend. Despite stating she had left of her own free will, authorities brought Zakher back to her husband. Since then, Zakher has been in seclusion. It is unclear where she is or if she remains there of her own free will.
Unconfirmed rumors began spreading that Zakher had converted to Islam and was being held against her will to force her to return to Christianity. Protests outside mosques after Friday prayers became weekly events. Protestors produced a photo of unknown origin of a woman in Islamic covering whom they claimed was Zakher. In response, Coptic authorities released a video in which the priest’s wife stated that she wasn’t a Muslim nor ever had been.
Another rumor began circulating that Zakher went to Al-Azhar University, one of the primary centers of Islamic learning in the world, to convert to Islam. But Al-Azhar, located in Cairo, released a statement that no such thing ever happened.
No independent media interviews of Zakher have taken place because, according to the Coptic Church, the SSI has ordered church officials not to allow public access to her. Along with their accusations about Zakher, protestors also claimed, without evidence, that a similar thing happened in 2004 to Wafa Constantine, also the wife of a Coptic Orthodox priest. Constantine was the second woman the ISI demanded the Copts “release.” Like Zakher, her location is not public knowledge.
The month after the Zakher incident, Egyptian media reported in error that the SSI had seized a ship from Israel laden with explosives headed for the son of an official of the Coptic Orthodox church. The ship was later found to be carrying fireworks, but another set of Islamic leaders, led in part by Nabih Al-Wahsh, an attorney famous for filing lawsuits designed to damage the church, declared without any evidence that Copts were allied with the Israelis and stockpiling weapons in the basements
of their churches with plans to overthrow the Muslim majority.
The claims were echoed on Al-Jazeera by Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-’Awa, the former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and in a statement issued by the Front of Religious Scholars, a group of academics affiliated with Al-Azhar University.
There was no time for tensions to cool after Al-’Awa and the others leveled their allegations. The next month, Bishop Anba Bishoy, the secretary of the Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masri Al-Yawm that Muslims were “guests” in Egypt, inflaming a Muslim population already up in arms.
“The Copts are the root of the land,” the bishop said. “We love the guests who came and settled in our land, and regard them as brothers, but they want to control even our churches? I reject anything that harms the Muslims, but as Christians we will do everything, even die as martyrs, if someone tries to harm our Christian mission.”
Around the same time, the Front of Religious Scholars called for a complete boycott of Christians in Egypt. The group called Christians “immoral,” labeled them “terrorists” and said Muslims should not patronize their businesses or even say “hello” to them.
The statement by the scholars was followed by a media leak about a lecture Bishoy was scheduled to give at a conference for Orthodox clergy. In his presentation, Bishoy planned on questioning the authorship of a verse in the Quran that calls Christians “blasphemers.” Muslims believe that an angel revealed the Quran to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, who transmitted it word-by-word to his followers. Bishoy contended there was a possibility the verse in question was added later.
The mosque protests became even more virulent, and the conference was abruptly cancelled. Bishoy was forced to issue an apology, saying he never meant to cast doubt on Islam and called Muslims “partners” with the Copts in Egypt. Shenouda also issued an apology on national television. By comparison, an Islamic publishing house that rewrote and then issued what it termed the “true Bible” caused barely a stir.
Al-’Awa then blamed the deteriorating state of Muslim-Christian relations on Shenouda and Bishoy. He accused the Coptic Orthodox Church of exploiting the government’s “weak stance” toward it and “incarcerating anyone [who] is not to its liking.”
The Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research issued a statement that declared, “Egypt is a Muslim state.” The statement further went on to read that the Christians’ rights were contingent on their acceptance of the “Islamic identity” of Egypt. The statement was endorsed by Ali Gum’a, the mufti of Egypt.
The statement also referenced an agreement made between Muhammad and a community of Egyptian Christians in the seventh century as the guiding document on how Christians should be governed in a Muslim-dominated state. If ever codified into Egyptian law as many Muslims in Egypt desire, it would legally cement the status of Christians in the country as second-class citizens.
In 639, seven years after Muhammad died, Muslim armies rode across from Syria and Palestine and invaded Egypt, then controlled by the Byzantines. At first the Muslims, then a new but well-armed minority within Egypt, treated the conquered Christians relatively well by seventh century standards. But within a generation, they began the Islamization of the country, demanding all official business be conducted in Arabic, the language of the Quran, and Coptic and Jewish residents were forced to pay special taxes and obey rules designed to reaffirm their second-class status.
In the centuries since then, the treatment of Christians in Egypt has ebbed and flowed depending on the whim of those in power. After the coup of 1952, in which a group of men known as the Free Officers’ Movement took power from a European-backed monarch, Copts have seen their treatment decline.
In 1971, then-President Anwar Sadat introduced a new constitution designating Islamic law as “a principle source of legislation” in Egypt. In 1980, the National Assembly made Islam the official religion of the state.
Estimates of the Coptic population range from 7 to 12 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people. They are accepted by some in Egypt and openly discriminated against by others. Violent attacks against Christians – which the government does little to prevent – accentuate tensions.
The state also routinely harasses converts to Christianity from Islam. Many have to live in some sort of hiding.
The Protestant woman said she was not sure whether attacks would happen in response to the threats, but whatever happens, she said she expects that Christians in Egypt will continue to endure persecution.
“According to the Bible, we know this is going to happen,” she said. “This is not new or novel for us. The Bible said that we will be persecuted. It is expected.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Pressured to convert to Islam, falsely accused Christian freed under reformed Emergency Law.
ISTANBUL, August 17 (CDN) — A Coptic Christian blogger arrested in Egypt on false charges of insulting Islam, then held for almost two years without charge under the country’s Emergency Law, has been released from prison.
Hani Nazeer, 31, a high school social worker and blogger was arrested Oct. 3, 2008 in response to a link to a Coptic Web site he placed on his Web log, “The Preacher of Love.” The Coptic Web site had a link to an online copy of “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,” a controversial book written in response to “Azazil,” a novel critical of Christianity.
While the Egyptian author of “Azazil,” Youssef Zeidan, won awards internationally and across the Arab-speaking world for his book, the link to “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca” earned Nazeer one year and nine months in prison. Nazeer said that when he posted the link, he did not know the Coptic Web site had a link to “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,” and that he has never read the book. Nazeer said there is a double standard in Egypt when it comes to any critique of Islam.
During his imprisonment, Nazeer said he was beaten, exposed to constant deprivation and was pressured to convert to Islam by violent criminals.
“One prisoner told me, ‘If you convert, you will be out in two days,’” Nazeer said.
He was released on July 22 because of recent reforms to the Emergency Law.
Riots and Arrest
Nazeer’s Web log was exclusively dedicated to human rights issues and concerns facing Egypt’s ethnic Coptic community. He had previously brought attention to himself by criticizing the ever-increasing Islamization of Egyptian civil society.
Nazeer also singled out leaders in the Coptic Orthodox Church and lamented their involvement in politics. In one post, Nazeer wrote that a gathering of activists at a Coptic church building was inappropriate because church buildings were meant to be venues for prayer, not for politics.
He said that despite the controversy, his real problems started the last week of August 2008 when someone in his village discovered the Web site link, and groups of angry young Muslim men began to riot. A local priest brought some of the rioters to meet with Nazeer in an attempt at reconciliation, to no avail.
“He tried to explain to them that the situation was not as they saw it, and that I was not the one who wrote it, and that my link wasn’t to the story – it was to another site,” Nazeer said. “They were so angry, but some of them understood, and some of them did not understand.”
For the next three days, the youths ripped through Qena, a village in Upper Egypt, protesting in the streets, throwing stones at houses and verbally assaulting Copts. The demonstrations happened during Ramadan, Islam’s most sacred month. It is unclear if any of the teenagers or men were arrested on any charges.
Nazeer went into hiding during the riots, seeking sanctuary in a monastery near Qena. The State Security Investigations unit (SSI), Egypt’s secret police agency, took two of Nazeer’s relatives into custody and aggressively interrogated them to obtain his location. Eventually Nazeer turned himself in so the SSI would release the two men.
For most of Nazeer’s imprisonment, he was housed in a single cell with at least 30 convicted felons. He said prison conditions were much worse there with the violent felons than in other parts of the prison, and he speculated that authorities placed him there to put pressure on him.
Nazeer previously stated through his attorneys that he felt prison guards had organized attempts through prisoners to force him to convert to Islam. He now says he is unsure if attempts at coercion were directed by anyone.
Nazeer said he wasn’t tortured individually, but that on one occasion guards beat him and other prisoners with sticks during a visit by a police major.
The most difficult time of his imprisonment, he said, was the first two weeks. During this time, authorities isolated him and moved him across Egypt from prison to prison. He was also repeatedly interrogated by SSI agents who tried to make him confess to being “Father Utah,” the as yet unidentified author of “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca.” They told him if he didn’t confess, he would never “see the street again.”
“I had no news about my family – I was cut off from everything,” Nazeer said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
An active member of his church for 10 years, Nazir said that before he was arrested his faith was strong, but that being in prison served only to make it stronger. He was able to get a Bible in prison and was even able to discuss Christ with two ethnic Copts who were incarcerated on felony charges.
“I spoke to them about the Christian faith when we were together alone,” Nazeer said.
He credited God for carrying him and his family through his imprisonment.
“There were times in prison that I was happy, and I know that is because God was with me,” he said.
Reform and Release
Nazeer was imprisoned under Egypt’s Emergency Law, passed in 1981 in the wake of the assassination of then-President Anwar Sadat; it allows the SSI to arrest and hold people indefinitely without charge.
In theory, the law was designed to be used to detain terrorists and others who violently opposed the state. In practice, however, it also has been used to silence opposition to President Hosni Mubarak’s regime and to persecute those outside of the religious mainstream – such as Muslims who have converted to Christianity, or members of Islamic groups considered to be heretical.
In 2005, Mubarak promised to let the law expire if re-elected, but in 2008 his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) extended the law for two more years.
Nazeer’s attorney filed motions numerous times to have him released, and 10 times judges ruled in his favor – but each time he was released from Borg El-Arab prison just outside of Alexandria, agents from the SSI, whose legal authority supersedes that of the Egyptian Courts, would take him to a different prison, he said.
“Every time the court would order my release, they would take me either to Alexandria or to Qena prison, and then later on, within a week, they would return me back to Borg El-Arab,” Nazeer said.
In May the NDP extended the law again but amended it to say that only people suspected of committing terrorist acts or of selling illegal narcotics could be arrested. In July, the Interior Ministry ordered that Nazeer be released in accordance with the revised statute.
Azza Taher Matar, a member of the International Relations Unit at the Arabic Center for Human Rights Information, an organization that defended Nazeer, said it is likely that the reforms to the Emergency Law will lead to authorities filing more charges of religious defamation against people in an effort to work around changes to the law.
Ever since his release, Nazeer, who said he was concerned for his safety, has been living in a residence provided by Bishop Kirollos of Nag Hammadi. He said he sees his family daily, and that Kirollos has said he will let him stay with him until he is “sorted out.”
Last October, Nazeer told his attorneys from prison that Kirollos was the priest that urged him to turn himself in to the SSI, promising that he would only be held four days and then released. Instead, Nazeer was prosecuted and sent to Borg El-Arab prison.
Nazeer now says he is unsure what role, if any, Kirollos played regarding his arrest. According to Nazeer, when he turned himself in to police, Kirollos said he would return in one hour, but the SSI took him away from the station.
Nazeer said he doesn’t know exactly what happened, but he added, “A priest should not sacrifice any of his people for any reason.”
He has applied for reappointment to his position as a high school social worker. He also said that despite his imprisonment, he will continue blogging.
Nazeer admits he is concerned about his safety, but that he “feels safe in God’s hands.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Coptic carpenter killed outside building that Muslims feared would be used as church.
ISTANBUL, February 16 (CDN) — Three men accused of killing six Coptic worshipers and a security guard pleaded not guilty on Saturday (Feb. 13) as the Coptic community mourned the loss of yet another victim of apparent anti-Christian violence.
The three men allegedly sprayed a crowd with gunfire after a Christmas service in Nag Hammadi on Jan. 6. In addition to the seven that were killed, nine others were wounded. The killings were the worst act of anti-Coptic violence since January 2000, when 20 Copts were killed in sectarian fighting in Al-Kosheh.
Defendants Mohammed al-Kammuni, Qorshi Abul Haggag and Hendawi Sayyed appeared Saturday in an emergency security court in Qena, a city 39 miles (63 kilometers) north of Luxor.
In front of the packed courtroom, the three men said little at the hearing other than to enter their plea before Judge Mohammed Adul Magd, according to one attorney present at the hearing. The men are charged with premeditated murder, public endangerment and damaging property.
Numerous Muslim attorneys volunteered to defend them for free as seven attorneys representing the interests of the victims looked on. The next hearing is set for March 20.
Even as the men entered their pleas, the Coptic community mourned the loss of yet another Christian, this one shot dead by police. On the evening of Feb. 9, Malak Saad, a 25-year-old Coptic carpenter living in Teta in Menoufia Province, was walking outside a meeting hall that police had seized from Christians when he was shot through his chest at close range. He died instantly.
Scant details are known about the shooting. Police surrounded the entire village and closed it to all reporters. In a statement, officials at the Interior Ministry said the Saad was killed by mistake when a bullet discharged while a police guard was cleaning his weapon. The Interior Ministry said the shooter has been detained and will be tried in a military court. Such courts are traditionally closed to the public.
One of Saad’s cousins, who requested anonymity, disputed the Interior Ministry’s version of the incident. He said that the guard had used the bathroom inside the meeting hall and had come outside of the building when he exchanged a few words with Saad and shot him at close range. The bullet went completely through Saad’s chest.
The building in question had been Coptic-owned for 16 years, but two days prior to the shooting, police seized it after a group of Muslims started a rumor that the owners planned to convert the hall into a church building.
Disputes over worship venues are common in Egypt. Copts and other Christians are extremely restricted in opening or even maintaining houses of worship because of complex government statutes. Anti-Christian elements within Egyptian society often use the statutes to harass Christians, Christian leaders said.
Following the Jan. 6 shootings, in a move that Christian leaders said was designed to silence the Coptic community’s protests, police began going door to door and arresting Coptic men in their late teens and 20s. Reports vary widely on the numbers of how many men were arrested, but 15 arrests have been confirmed.
Early in the morning of Jan. 8, officers from State Security Intelligence appeared at the home of Tanios Samuel looking for a different house. When officers realized they were at the wrong home, they arrested his brothers, Fady Milad Samuel, 21, and Wael Milad Samuel, 24.
“We are Copts. It is their country, they will do whatever they want,” Tanios Samuel said about the arrests.
He said the government is using his brothers and the others arrested as pawns to silence dissent. He said he lives in fear for himself and his brothers.
“The families are very scared – scared of violence, getting threats all the time,” Samuel said. “All we want is peace.”
Last month’s attack brought widespread outrage across the Coptic community and from human rights groups around the world.
Since his rise to power in 1981, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has avoided classifying any anti-Coptic attack as part of a larger sectarian struggle within the country. His critics however, have long said his policies or lack thereof contribute greatly to the anti-Christian climate within the country.
Although freedom of religion is guaranteed in Egypt’s constitution, Islam is the official state religion. In public schools, the Quran is used to teach Arabic.
On Jan. 21, Mubarak made an uncharacteristically strong statement about the shootings to MENA, the government-run news agency.
“The criminal act in Nag Hammadi has bled the hearts of Egyptians,” he said. “I hasten to affirm that the reasonable people of this nation, and its religious leaders and thinkers … bear the greater responsibility to contain discord and ignorance and blind fanaticism and to confront the despicable sectarian strife that threatens the unity of our society.”
Despite Mubaraks’s comments, the government has characterized the attack as either a random criminal act or as one done in reaction to a November incident in which a 21-year-old Christian man allegedly raped a 12-year-old Muslim girl.
In an interview with BBC Arabic, Dr. Fathi Sourour, head of the Egyptian Parliament, said, “The Nag Hammadi shooting of Christians on Christmas Eve was a single criminal act, with no sectarian dimensions.” He added that the crime was “prompted by the ‘death’ of a Muslim girl as a result of being raped by a Copt.”
Later, commenting on a report about the incident, he described the shootings as “a clash between two brothers living in one home.”
Copts, however, have a starkly different impression of the shooting.
Georgette Qillini, a Coptic member of the Egyptian Parliament, described the attack as “a purely sectarian crime and by no means an individual criminal attack,” the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram reported.
Ibtessam Habib, another Coptic Parliament member, agreed that “sectarian rather than personal motives lie behind the Nag Hammadi attack.”
Report from Compass Direct News
It has been reported that today (Monday, November 23, 2009,) Muslim rioters looted and burned Coptic Christian businesses in the village of Abou Shousha, which lies 25 KM (nearly 16 miles) from Farshoot where recent violence had taken place, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.
“The terrorized Coptic inhabitants of Abou Shousha have stayed indoors, their shops are closed and their children are being kept away from school,” wrote Mary Abdelmassih in a story for the Assyrian International News Agency (www.aina.org ). “They fear a repeat in their village of the Muslim violence which engulfed the town of Farshoot less than 36 hours earlier.
“The Middle East Christian Association (MECA) reported that at least three large Coptic stores and a pharmacy were looted and burnt in Abou Shousha and that the fire brigade arrived one hour late, although their headquarters is only 8 KM (5 miles) away from the village.”
Wagih Yacoub of MECA said, “They gave the pretext of being busy in Farshoot, which is untrue, as Farshoot had a quiet night. Coptic and Muslim neighbors tried to put the fire out.”
Abdelmassih went on to say that Bishop Kirrillos of the Nag Hamady Diocese said that a mob from the neighboring village of Abu Tesht torched the businesses in Abou Shousha. MECA reported that three girls were assaulted in the street by having bricks hurled at them. No serious injuries were reported.
On November 22, 2009, in a joint communiqué from fourteen Egyptian human rights organizations and lawyers called on President Hosni Mubarak to immediately intervene to save the Copts from the wrath of the mob and the subversive leaders behind them, who are seeking to sow discord and divisions among the Egyptians in the name of religion and “to hold accountable all involved in the incitement or attacks on the peaceful Copts in Farshoot.”
Abdelmassih wrote that the signatories to the statement asked President Mubarak to take the necessary measures to hold accountable the security force officials, who played the “role of spectator in the looting, arson and attacks on Coptic property in Farshoot.”
The communiqué strongly condemned the deportation and evacuation of the Copts in Farshoot from their homes and villages by the security forces, in violation of the provisions of the Egyptian Constitution which stipulates in Article 50 and 51 of the Code “No citizen may be prohibited from residing or be forced to reside in a specific area except in the circumstances set out in the law.
The NGOs’ statement stressed the right of the Coptic victims for compensation for the material losses and psychological damage, and strongly condemned the burning and insulting of the symbols of Christianity by the Muslims fanatics, and demanded everyone involved to be charged with the crime of “contempt of a heavenly religion.”
“It is estimated that over 80% of Coptic businesses have been destroyed in the 48 hours of violence in Farshoot,” said Abdelmassih.
A video can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYFsW-uABJg&feature=player_embedded . It was prepared by Free Copts advocacy and shows Muslim mobs chanting Allah Akbar (God is Great) while looting and burning Coptic businesses and shops.
Abdelmassih added that the Egyptian Union for Human Rights (EUHRO) has advised that it is preparing a file with all the financial losses and damages to Coptic-owned businesses and property in Farshoot in preparation for filing a civil and a criminal case against the Egyptian Prime Minister, the Governor of Qena and the perpetrators.
“They want the Copts to be poor and are therefore destroying the Coptic economy in these areas,” explained Wagih Yacoub.
Bishop Kirollos again condemned the grave violations against Christians and their property, affirming his belief that the attacks were preplanned. “Students of Al-Azhar Institute in Farshoot, were incited by their Dean who sent them out on a rampage against the Copts. They were joined by a great number of locals,” he said.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Authorities deny Christian’s application for release.
ISTANBUL, November 9 (CDN) — A Coptic Christian blogger in Egypt held in prison for more than a year without charge said today he will go on a hunger strike unless authorities grant his next application for release.
Hani Nazeer, a 28-year-old high school social worker from Qena, Egypt and author of the blog “Karz El Hob,” received word today that his latest application for release, sent to the Ministry of the Interior a week ago, was denied. His attorneys said they would re-apply for his release tomorrow.
The interior ministry did not “supply the grounds for refusal” according to Rawda Ahamad, Nazeer’s lead defense attorney.
“He has no charges against him,” Ahamad said. “He is not a criminal. He must be released immediately. He’s an innocent man – anyone exposed to this severe injustice would do the same.”
On Oct. 3, 2008, Nazeer was arrested by Egypt’s State Security Investigations (SSI) and sent to Burj Al-Arab prison. Although police never charged him with any crime, Nazeer has been detained for more than a year under Egypt’s administrative imprisonment law.
Nazeer ran afoul of SSI officers a few days before his arrest when a group of local teenagers visited his website and clicked on a link to an online copy of “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,” a novel written under the pseudonym “Father Utah.” The book is a response to “Azazil,” a novel by Yusuf Zidane, critical of Christianity.
Insulting religion is illegal in Egypt, but the law is enforced unequally. Zidane’s critique of Christianity garnered him fame and awards throughout the Arab world. Nazeer’s website link cost him his freedom, despite the fact that police have never publicly produced any evidence linking Nazeer to Utah’s work. After Nazeer was arrested, posts continued on Utah’s website.
Nazeer has reported to his attorneys that he has been placed in prison with felons, some of them violent. He also claims that prison authorities have pressured him to convert to Islam.
Gamel Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, the group representing Nazeer, stood by his client’s accusations, saying police have urged inmates to suggest to Nazeer that officers would work to free him if he were to convert to Islam.
Nazeer’s situation is complicated by the fact that his writings upset both Islamic authorities and the hierarchy of the Coptic Orthodox Church. On one hand, he criticized the increasing Islamization of Egyptian civil society. On the other, he lamented the political involvement of the Coptic Orthodox Church. In one post, Nazeer wrote that a gathering of activists at a Coptic church was inappropriate because churches were meant to be venues for prayer, not for politics.
According to Eid, Nazeer was arrested with the complicity of leaders in the Coptic Orthodox Church. In October of 2008, police detained Nazeer’s relatives at a police station and threatened to hold them until he came out of hiding. Nazeer turned himself into the police station on the advice of Bishop Kirollos of Nag Hammadi, Nazeer reported to his attorneys. Kirollos assured Nazeer he would be detained no more than four days and then be released.
Kirollos had denounced Nazeer to security, Nazeer told his attorneys.
All attempts to reach Kirollos about his alleged involvement in Nazeer’s arrest were unsuccessful. Several attempts to reach Bishop Anba Yoannes, authorized to speak about the case on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s Pope Shenouda III, were also unsuccessful. Egypt’s SSI, a political police force run by the Interior minister, routinely declines to comment on cases.
This week’s application will be sent to a court within the Ministry of the Interior. But under the emergency law, police officials have the power to ignore court orders. When local police execute a court order to release prisoners held under Egypt’s emergency law, security police commonly re-arrest them minutes later.
The law, enacted after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, allows authorities to hold people without charge. Eid estimated that there are approximately 14,000 people imprisoned under this law. In 2005, while running for re-election, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised to replace the contested law. But in May of 2008, the Egyptian government extended the law for two more years.
Mamdouh Nakhla, an attorney and civil rights activist in Egypt, said oppression of Coptic Christians is common and that many police officers in Egypt are the “agents of persecution.” At best, he said, they are complicit in acts of persecution. At worst, he added, police collude with others hostile to Christianity.
“They give green lights to Islamists, and protect them, and give them the feeling that they are immune from prosecution,” he said.
Report from Compass Direct News
Christian woman tells TV audience imprisoned clergyman did not know of false ID.
ISTANBUL, May 22 (Compass Direct News) – An Egyptian convert from Islam who forged Christian identification papers and later used them to marry a Coptic man has appeared on a television show declaring the innocence of a priest serving a five-year sentence for marrying the couple.
The priest’s lawyers, Ramses El-Naggar and Peter Ramses, submitted a recording of convert Mariam Nabil’s TV interview to Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud in support of their appeal of the Rev. Mattaos Wahba’s conviction for conducting a marriage ceremony with false documents.
“We are sure that if we can review that case in front of the high court, Father Mattaos will be free, because the decision from the court is the wrong decision,” said Ramses. “But until now we didn’t present the case.”
The priest of Archangel Michael Church at Kerdasa, in Geza, and two other men were charged with converting Nabil and aiding her in forging a Christian ID card. The other two men are in hiding.
Wahba was arrested last October, with the added charge of knowingly conducting a marriage ceremony with false documents. He was convicted of this charge and sentenced to five years in Cairo’s Tora prison.
Nabil maintains that Wahba had no involvement in obtaining the false documents and was not aware that they were forged when he married the couple.
Safwat El-Baiday, spokesman for the Evangelical Church in Egypt, said priests should not be made responsible for verifying documents.
“We as a church do not believe that a priest who sees the documents and the witnesses can be put in jail,” El-Baiday said. “If there are witnesses and a bride and a groom, it is not our job to investigate if their documents are right or wrong.”
The conviction met with a public outcry, and international Coptic rights groups have petitioned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to release Wahba.
Consequences of Conversion
Despite the risk to herself, her husband and his family, Nabil went public with her story on April 24, appearing on the TV show “Daring Questions,” which is produced outside of Egypt and airs weekly on the Christian Al-Hayat station.
Nabil, born Reham Abdel Aziz, originally converted from Islam to Christianity in 2004. After suffering harsh treatment from her family due to her conversion, she sought to leave them and live freely as a Christian, leading to her need for new identification documents. Using the birth certificate of a deceased woman, she managed to obtain a government identification card stating her religion as Christian in 2004.
Later she fell in love and married. Shortly after their marriage in 2006, Nabil and her husband fled Egypt to escape her family members, who had threatened to kill her. When Nabil’s relatives learned of her marriage, they informed police, who discovered the forgery. She left Egypt before the falsified ID was discovered, and authorities still seek to arrest her and her husband for forged documents.
The host of “Daring Questions” told Compass via telephone that because there is no legal means for converts from Islam to designate it on identification papers, they are often left with no option but to break the law. In Egypt, a Christian man is not allowed to marry a Muslim woman.
“From one side I am against forging documents, but from the other side I think that the government is pushing Christians from a Muslim background to forge documents,” he said. “They give them no choice.”
Officially changing one’s religious status away from Islam is not legally possible in Egypt. Two Christian converts involved in a legal battle for this right, Maher El-Gohary and Mohammed Hegazy, are in hiding under threat of death.
Report from Compass Direct News
Human rights advocates look to international arena for help.
ISTANBUL, November 24 (Compass Direct News) – Egyptian human rights workers are looking to international bodies for support against Muslim judges who use sharia (Islamic law) to undermine custody rights of Christian mothers.
Despite provisions such as Egyptian law’s Article 20, which dictates that minors should remain with their mother until age 15, judges consistently rule in favor of Muslim fathers in custody disputes with Christian mothers. Islamist judges typically resort to Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which states that “principles of Islamic law are the principal source of legislation.”
Sharia-based decisions that rule contrary to Egyptian statutory law have led the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent human rights organization, to protest before the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR). The ACHPR was formed by the African Union to oversee the implementation of its Charter on Human and People’s Rights.
An investigation, decision and recommendation by the African Commission to the Egyptian government would lend considerable weight to the EIPR’s efforts to enforce Egyptian Personal Status Law, which states explicitly the mother’s right to custody of her children until they reach age 15.
The EIPR’s complaint before the African Commission accuses the Egyptian government of violating the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Egypt ratified in 1984, the human rights organization said in a Nov. 10 statement. The EIPR referred to the case of 13-year-old twins Andrew and Mario Medhat Ramses, whom an appeals court awarded to their father Medhat Ramses Labib on Sept. 24 after a custody battle.
“The government’s treatment of the boys’ mother, Kamilia Lotfy Gaballah, constituted discrimination based on her religion and violated her right to equal protection before the law,” the EIPR stated. “The case also charges that the government violated the two boys’ right to freedom of religion and contravened the state’s legal obligation to protect child rights.”
The boys’ father, Labib, converted to Islam in 1999 after divorcing Gaballah to marry another woman. In 2006 Labib altered the official religious status of the boys and later applied for custody.
“Obviously in this custody decision, it is a flagrant disregard of the Personal Status Law, which ensures custody for the mother until the children are 15 years old,” said Hossam Bahgat of the EIPR. “In this case the judiciary chose to ignore statutory law and apply their own interpretation of sharia.”
The long-running case of the twins exemplifies the problem but is in no way unique. Sisters Ashraqat Gohar, 12, and Maria Gohar, 8, were taken from their Christian mother in January and placed in the custody of their Muslim father, Wafiq Gohar, despite his criminal record and the 12-year-old’s claims that he is an alcoholic.
The court ruling referred to Wafiq Gohar’s fears that “[the girls] would cherish a religion other than Islam, eat foods that are banned in Islam and go to church” as determining factors in their decision.
“It is a big problem we are facing in Egypt,” said Naguib Gobrail, president of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations. “The decision of the court clearly stated that according to Article 2, the main source [of legislation] is sharia, so the judge cannot apply the natural law.”
More recently, 3-year-old Barthenia Rezqallah of Tanta, near Cairo, remains in her father’s custody, despite a court order that she be returned to her mother pending a final verdict. Police have turned a blind eye to the court order out of fears that the child will practice Christianity rather than Islam, said Gobrail.
Gobrail said that international pressure may be the solution.
“Maybe a connection with someone of international character connecting with President [Hosni] Mubarak is the only way,” he said, “because he has the authority to give orders to the National Assembly to issue a law to make things equal between Muslims and Copts, especially for the children.”
Report from Compass Direct News