Moroccan Convert Serving 15 Years for His Faith


Christian’s sentence for ‘proselytism,’ burning poles called excessive.

ISTANBUL, September 17 (CDN) — Nearly five years into the prison sentence of the only Christian in Morocco serving time for his faith, Moroccan Christians and advocates question the harsh measures of the Muslim state toward a man who dared speak openly about Jesus.

By the end of December Jamaa Ait Bakrim, 46, will have been in prison for five years at Morocco’s largest prison, Prison Centrale, in Kenitra. An outspoken Christian convert, Bakrim was sentenced to 15 years prison for “proselytizing” and destroying “the goods of others” in 2005 after burning two defunct utility poles located in front of his private business in a small town in south Morocco.

Advocates and Moroccan Christians said, however, that the severity of his sentence in relation to his misdemeanor shows that authorities were determined to put him behind bars because he persistently spoke about his faith.

“He became a Christian and didn’t keep it to himself,” said a Moroccan Christian and host for Al Hayat Television who goes only by his first name, Rachid, for security reasons. “He shared it with people around him. In Morocco, and this happened to me personally, if you become a Christian you may be persecuted by your family. If you keep it to yourself, no one will bother you. If you share it with anyone else and start speaking about it, that’s another story.”

Rachid fled Morocco in 2005 due to mounting pressure on him and his family. He is a wanted man in his country, but he said it is time for people to start speaking up on behalf of Bakrim, whom he said has “zeal” for his faith and speaks openly about it even in prison.

“Our Moroccan brothers and sisters suffer, and we just assume things will be OK and will somehow change later by themselves,” said Rachid. “They will never change if we don’t bring it to international attention.”

Authorities in Agadir tried Bakrim for “destruction of the goods of others,” which is punishable with up to 20 years in prison, and for proselytism under Article 220, which is punishable with six months to three years in prison.

“Jamaa is a manifestation of a very inconvenient truth for Moroccan authorities: there are Moroccan converts to Christianity,” said Logan Maurer, a regional director at U.S.-based advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC). “The government wants to ignore this, suppress it, and when – as in Jamaa’s case – the problem won’t go away, they do whatever they can to silence it.”

Proselytism in Morocco is generally defined as using means of seduction or exploiting weakness to undermine the faith of Muslims or to convert them to another religion.

Recently Morocco has used the law to punish any proclamation of non-Muslim faith, contradicting its pledge to allow freedom to manifest one’s faith under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one’s faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

The covenant also states, however, that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts in the country. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.

Between March and June authorities expelled 128 foreign Christians in an effort to purge the country of any foreign Christian influences. In April nearly 7,000 Muslim religious leaders backed the deportations by signing a document describing the work of Christians within Morocco as “moral rape” and “religious terrorism.” The statement from the religious leaders came amid a nationwide mudslinging campaign geared to vilify Christians in Morocco for “proselytism” – widely perceived as bribing people to change their faith.

In the same time period, Moroccan authorities applied pressure on Moroccan converts to Christianity through interrogations, searches and arrests. Christians on the ground said that, although these have not continued, there is still a general sense that the government is increasingly intolerant of Christian activities.  

“They are feeling very bad,” said Rachid. “I spoke to several of them, and they say things are getting worse…They don’t feel safe. They are under a lot of disappointment, and [they are] depressed because the government is putting all kinds of pressure on them.”

 

From Europe to Prison

Bakrim, a Berber from southern Morocco, studied political science and law in Rabat. After completing his studies he traveled to Europe, where he became a Christian. Realizing that it would be difficult to live out his new-found faith in Morocco, in 1993 he applied for political asylum in the Netherlands, but immigration authorities refused him and expelled him when his visa expired.

In 1995 Bakrim was prosecuted for “proselytizing,” and spent seven months in jail in the city of Goulemine. In April 1996 he was transferred to a mental hospital in Inezgane, where authorities ordered he undergo medical treatments. He was released in June. The psychiatric treatment caused side-effects in his behavior and made it difficult for him to control his hands and legs for a period of time, sources told Compass.

Two years later authorities put him in jail again for a year because he publicly displayed a cross, according to an article by Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdo published in January 2005.

“He has a zeal about his religion,” said Rachid. “He never denied his faith through all these things, and he even preached the gospel in prison and the psychiatric place where they held him … They tried to shut him [up], and they couldn’t.”

In 2001 Bakrim again attracted attention by painting crosses and writing Bible verses in public view at his place of business, which also served as his home, according to the French-language weekly. Between 2001 and 2005 he reportedly wrote to the municipality of Massa, asking officials to remove two wooden utility posts that were no longer in use, as they were blocking his business. When authorities didn’t respond, Bakrim burned them.

During his defense at the Agadir court in southern Morocco, Bakrim did not deny his Christian faith and refuted accusations that he had approached his neighbors in an attempt to “undermine their Muslim faith.”

The judge ruled that “the fact that Jamaa denies accusations of proselytism is inconsistent with his previous confession in his opening statement when he proclaimed he was the son of Christ, and that he wished that Moroccans would become Christians,” according to Le Journal Hebdo.

Bakrim did not appeal the court sentence. Though there have been other cases of Christians imprisoned for their faith, none of their sentences has been as long as Bakrim’s.

“They will just leave him in the prison so he dies spiritually and psychologically,” said Rachid. “Fifteen years is too much for anything they say he did, and Jamaa knows that. The authorities know he’s innocent. So probably they gave him this sentence so they can shut him [up] forever.”

Rachid asked that Christians around the world continue to lobby and pray that their Moroccan brothers and sisters stand firm and gain their freedoms.

“The biggest need is to stand with the Moroccan church and do whatever it takes to ask for their freedom of religion,” said Rachid.

Report from Compass Direct News

SOMALIA: KENYAN PASTOR BEATEN AT SOMALILAND BORDER


Immigration officials threaten to kill convert from Islam unless he renounces faith.

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 8 (Compass Direct News) – A pastor trying to visit Somalia’s autonomous, self-declared state of Somaliland earlier this year discovered just how hostile the separatist region can be to Christians.

A convert from Islam, Abdi Welli Ahmed is an East Africa Pentecostal Church pastor from Kenya who in February tried to visit and encourage Christians, an invisibly tiny minority, in the religiously intolerant region of Somaliland.

Born and raised in Kenya’s northern town of Garissa, Ahmed first traveled to Addis Ababa, the capital of neighboring Ethiopia. When he arrived by car at the border crossing of Wajaale on Feb. 19 with all legal travel documents, his Bible and other Christian literature landed him in unexpected trouble with Somaliland immigration officials.

“I was beaten up for being in possession of Christian materials,” Ahmed told Compass. “They threatened to kill me if I did not renounce my faith, but I refused to their face. They were inhuman.”

Ahmed said the chief border official in Wajaale, whom he could identify only by his surname of Jama, took charge of most of the torturing. Ahmed said their threats were heart-numbing as they struggled to subdue him, with Jama and others saying they had killed two Somali Christians and would do the same to him.

His pleas that he was a Kenyan whose faith was respected in his home country, he said, fell on deaf ears.

“I was abused, and they also abused my faith as the religion for pagans, which they said is unacceptable in their region,” he said. “I told them that I am Kenyan-born and brought up in Kenya, and my Christian faith is respected and recognized in Garissa.”

Jama ordered Ahmed’s incarceration, and he was locked up in an immigration cell for nine hours. The officials took from his bag three CDs containing his personal credentials and Christian educational literature. They also took his English Bible, two Christian books and US$400, he said.

Ahmed said he was released with the aid of an unnamed Ethiopian friend.

“They warned me to never dare step into or think of going to Somaliland again,” said Ahmed, who doubles as a relief and development worker.

On March 22 he sent letters of complaint to Ethiopian, Kenyan and even presumably less-than-sympathetic Somaliland officials; none has shown any signs of pursuing justice, he said.

Compass e-mailed a copy of the letter to Alexander O. Oxiolo, head of consular affairs at Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs ministry, who subsequently denied receiving it. When Compass printed the letter and took a hard copy to him, Oxiolo said he could not act on it because the complainant had not signed it.

He also questioned whether Ahmed was a Christian because of his Muslim name, apparently expecting him to have changed it after conversion.

Ahmed converted to Christianity in 1990. Soon after he was baptized in 1995, Ahmed came under threat from Muslims and fled to Niger in 1996, where he married. He and his wife returned to Kenya in 2000, Ahmed said, and since then he has received a steady stream of threats from Muslims in Garissa. On several occasions he has been forced to leave Garissa for months at a time, he said, waiting for tensions to cool.

Ahmed was ordained in 2004.

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAQ: GUNMEN KILL CHRISTIANS IN KIRKUK


Clergy believe attacks were religiously motivated.

ISTANBUL, April 28 (Compass Direct News) – Gunmen in Iraq shot five Chaldean Catholic Christians in their Kirkuk homes on Sunday (April 26) in two separate attacks, killing three and injuring two.

Cousins Suzan Latif David and Muna Banna David were killed at 10 p.m. in a suburb of the northern Iraqi city. Within a few minutes, Yousif Shaba and his sons Thamir and Basil were also shot in the same area, leaving the 17-year-old Basil dead. Yousif Shaba and Thamir were in critical condition.

Police have not stated if the two attacks were related, but they confirmed the arrest of nine men linked with the assault, a source told Compass. One of them is from the former insurgent stronghold of Ramadi and has suspected links to Al Qaeda.

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Kirkuk Louis Sako said the attacks aimed to split the community. Yesterday he presided over the murder victims’ funeral, which the city police chief and provincial governor also attended.

“The main object of these crimes is to create chaos and promote strife and division among the people of Kirkuk,” Sako said, according to Reuters. “I call on Christians not to be jarred by these crimes and stay in Kirkuk. We are sons of this city.”

Kirkuk Province Gov. Abdul Rahman Mustafa echoed the archbishop’s comments, calling on Kirkuk’s citizens to stand united against the terrorists.

Violence has struck the nation’s Christian community particularly hard since the Iraq war began in 2003. Left mostly defenseless in sectarian violence, Christians have been targeted for kidnapping under the assumption that they can garner a large ransom.

Chaldean Christians have been hardest hit in the northern city of Mosul, where thousands of families have fled since an uptick in violence started last October. Some locals believe Kurdish groups are trying to intimidate them into leaving so they can incorporate the city into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

But Kirkuk has largely avoided the sectarian bloodshed of the region. For this reason clergy believe the five Christians were targeted purely for their religion.

“They were peaceful Christian families, not involved in any political affiliation or such activities,” said Father Emanuel Youkhana of Christian Aid Program Nohadra Iraq, a local humanitarian organization. “What were they involved in that they be targeted in such a brutal way?

He added that most locals believe the two attacks were coordinated in order to terrorize Christians, as they occurred only a few minutes apart from each other.

“It was not just an accident that the two attacks happened in the same city on the same day at the same time,” he said.

The oil-rich city of Kirkuk has been caught in a tug-of-war between its Arab and Kurdish residents. Arabs were resettled there during Saddam Hussein’s regime, and Kurds have been moving back to reclaim the homes from which they were forcibly expelled.

But other groups have criticized Kurds for their massive immigration, charging that it is a means to annex the city – and its oil wealth – into the Kurdish region. Kirkuk has a small population of native Christians, with many moving here in recent decades to work in the oil industry. The Christian population is approximately 7,000.

Local police and officials have blamed Al Qaeda for the murders. Fr. Youkhana said there has been no evidence of Al Qaeda involvement, but that “for sure” it was a fundamentalist Islamic terrorist attack. He said security forces are often quick to blame foreign-based Al Qaeda rather than call attention to a violent, homegrown organization.

An Eastern rite denomination in communion with Rome, the Chaldean Catholic Church is Iraq’s largest Christian community.  

Report from Compass Direct News

BANGLADESH: CHRISTIAN CONVERT’S LIFE THREATENED


Muslim family pays price for son’s conversion; father shunned, ordered confined to home.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, October 16 (Compass Direct News) – Muslim clerics and neighbors have ordered the father of a man who converted to Catholicism to remain confined to his house until retaliatory punishment can be exacted from the convert.

“Are you not ashamed that your son became Christian?” the founder of a mosque here asked Ruhul Amin Khandaker, father of a 32-year-old businessman who went to Australia earlier this year to court a Philippine Catholic woman, converting to her faith in April. “Why did you not sacrifice your son like cattle before telling the news to us?”

Khandaker has become a social outcast whose family lives under threat from fellow Muslims, in violation of Bangladesh’s constitution and international human rights safeguards. His son, Rashidul Amin Khandaker, has applied for protection from Australian immigration officials as he believes police in 88 percent-Muslim Bangladesh would do nothing to protect him from Islamists threatening to kill him.

“They will try to kill me anywhere, any time in Bangladesh, and the police and the authority will not protect me,” Rashidul Khandaker wrote in his plea to Australian authorities. “There are records that show a converted person is not protected by the police, authority and society.”

Khandaker’s life would be in danger if he returned to Bangladesh, said his brother-in-law, identified only as Siddik, adding that “we are also surviving in the society at our own peril.”

Rashidul Khandaker’s brother wrote him in May to cease all contact with the family. Rakibul Amin Khandaker stated in the letter that Muslim authorities had threatened to ostracize the family because of his brother’s conversion, and that his life would be in danger if he returned to Bangladesh as Muslim extremists believe they would get to heaven by punishing him.

Muslim leaders in Dhaka have ordered Khandaker’s 65-year-old father to disown his son and exclude him from his wealth and property.

“If he comes to Bangladesh, you must hand him over to us and we will punish him,” the founder of the mosque told the elder Khandaker.

Khandaker, who operates an oil lubricant refining business in the Kutubkhali area under Jatrabari police jurisdiction in central Dhaka, told Compass of the grief he experienced when his son informed the family from Sydney that he had become a Christian.

“My other sons and relatives informed it to the nearby cleric of the mosque so that the cleric could console me,” he said. “Unfortunately the cleric was so furious . . . [He] told me that, ‘You cannot keep any relationship with your son. A man of a noble Muslim family cannot be a Christian, and the society cannot accept it.”

 

Home Ransacked

When Rashidul Khandaker, who worked as director of marketing in his father’s business before going to Australia to pursue a relationship with a woman he met over the Internet, telephoned friends in Dhaka about his conversion, seven or eight of them broke into his house to loot his computer, scanner, printer, documents, sofa and other valuables, his father said.

“They told me, ‘We will return everything when your son comes back. Whenever he will come back, you must hand him over to us – we will take revenge for his activities. Until he comes, don’t mix with the people in the society and stay in your house.’”

The elder Khandaker said his son’s former friends also threatened to harm the family if they informed police about the looting.

“We did not file any case against them. If we file a case, they will do more harm and we can not stay in the society,” Khandaker said.

After receiving the threats from the local residents and Muslim leaders to remain confined to his house in front of his three sons and other relatives, Khandaker’s blood pressure spiked and he suffered a stroke, he said.

“Local doctors did not come to my house to treat me – they are afraid of the society and they also hate us,” he said. “I was taken to the hospital. The doctors did a brain scan and they said there was a hemorrhage on the left side of brain.”

The ostracizing of the elder Khandaker was especially painful during Ramadan, culminating with the festival of Eid al-Fitre on Oct. 2 after a month of day-long fasting and nightly feasting.

“Nobody, including neighbors and relatives, did come to my house, and I could not go to anybody’s house,” Khandaker said. “My relatives did not come lest they be in trouble. I was alone during the festival, and nothing has happened like this in my 65 years of life.”

Yet Khandaker said he does not want to deprive his son of his property and wealth. “If all of my property and wealth is destroyed, I can tolerate that, but one thing I cannot tolerate is to carry the coffin of my son on my shoulders,” Khandaker said.

Any unwillingness of authorities to defend the rights of Rashidul Khandaker or his Muslim family members against the threats against them would violate the freedom of religion asserted in the Constitution of Bangladesh, which states in Article 41.1 in Part 3 that every citizen has the right to profess, practice or propagate any religion.

“My son changed his faith according to his will, and our constitution supports this kind of activity,” the elder Khandaker said. “Why the constitutional rights should not be realized in the society?”

The social pressures also defy international human rights safeguards guaranteeing freedom of religion. Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Bangladesh is a party, says that everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

“My son converted to Christianity according to his own will – we did not support it, and we are not converted. Why should we bear the brunt of his faith?” said the elder Khandaker. “I want to get rid of such a claustrophobic, social-outcast life for my son’s conversion to Christianity.”  

Report from Compass Direct News