Christians in Turkey Acquitted of ‘Insulting Turkishness’

But court heavily fines them for dubious conviction of collecting personal data.

ISTANBUL, October 19 (CDN) — After four years of legal battle in a Turkish court, a judge acquitted two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge.

Four years ago this month, Turan Topal, 50, and Hakan Tastan, 41, started a legal battle after gendarmerie officers produced false witnesses to accuse them of spreading their faith and allegedly “insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.”

At the Silivri court an hour west of Istanbul, Judge Hayrettin Sevim on Thursday (Oct. 14) acquitted the defendants of two charges that they had insulted the Turkish state (Article 301) and that they had insulted its people (Article 216) by spreading Christianity. Sevim cited lack of evidence.

He found them guilty, however, of collecting information on citizens without permission (Article 135) and sentenced them to seven months of imprisonment each. The court ruled that the two men could each pay a 4,500 lira (US$3,170) fine instead of serving time, said their lawyer Haydar Polat.

Tastan expressed mixed feelings about the verdicts.

“For both Turan and I, being found innocent from the accusation that we insulted the Turkish people was the most important thing for us, because we’ve always said we’re proud to be Turks,” Tastan said by telephone. “But it is unjust that they are sentencing us for collecting people’s information.”

At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which has since acquired official association status and is now called The Association for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible. The two men had used contact information that individuals interested in Christianity had volunteered to provide on the association’s website.

Administrators of the association stated openly to local authorities that their goal was to disseminate information about Christianity.

The two men and their lawyer said they will be ready to appeal the unjust decision of the court when they have seen the official statement, which the court should issue within a month. Polat said the appeal process will take over a year.

“Why should we have to continue the legal battle and appeal this?” asked Tastan. “We are not responsible for the information that was collected. So why are they fining us for this? So, we continue our legal adventure.”

Still, he expressed qualified happiness.

“We are free from the charges that we have insulted the Turkish state and the people of Turkey and we’re glad for that, but we are sorry about the court’s sentence,” Tastan said. “We’re happy on one hand, and sorry on the other.”

The court hearing lasted just a few minutes, said Polat.

“The judges came to the court hearing ready with their decision,” Polat said. “Their file was complete, and there was neither other evidence nor witnesses.”

Polat was hesitant to comment on whether the decision to convict the men of collecting private data without permission was because they are Christians. He did underline, however, that the court’s decision to fine the men was unjust, and that they plan to appeal it after the court issues an official written verdict.

“This was the court’s decision,” said Polat, “but we believe this is not fair. This decision is inconsistent with the law.”


Christianity on Trial

The initial charges in 2006 against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

In March 2009 the Turkish Ministry of Justice issued a statement claiming that approval to try the two men’s case under the controversial Article 301came in response to the “original” statement by three young men that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Two of the three witnesses, however, stated in court that they didn’t even know Topal and Tastan. The third witness never appeared in court. Prosecutors were unable to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms. At the same time, they questioned their right to speak openly about Christianity with others.

Polat and his legal partners had based their defense on the premise that Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” Polat told Compass last year. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking, it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer and the defendants said that prosecuting lawyers gave political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light, claiming that missionary activities were carried out by imperialistic countries intending to harm Turkey.

Tastan and Topal became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.

Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.

Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.

Ergenekon has been implicated in the cases of murdered priest Andreas Santoro, Armenian editor Hrant Dink, and the three Christians in Malatya: Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske.

In a separate case, in March of 2009 Tastan and Topal were charged with “illegal collection of funds.” Each paid a fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in Istanbul. The verdict could not be appealed in the Turkish legal courts. This ruling referred to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local authorities.

Report from Compass Direct News

Indonesian Muslims Call for Halt to ‘Christianization’

Forum highlights religious tensions in Bekasi, West Java.

DUBLIN, July 2 (CDN) — Muslim organizations in Bekasi, West Java, on Sunday (June 27) declared their intention to establish paramilitary units in local mosques and a “mission center” to oppose “ongoing attempts to convert people to Christianity,” according to the national Antara news agency.

At a gathering at the large Al Azhar mosque, the leaders of nine organizations announced the results of a Bekasi Islamic Congress meeting on June 20, where they agreed to establish a mission center to halt “Christianization,” form a Laskar Pemuda youth army and push for implementation of sharia (Islamic law) in the region, The Jakarta Post reported.

“If the Muslims in the city can unite, there will be no more story about us being openly insulted by other religions,” Ahmad Salimin Dani, head of the Bekasi Islamic Missionary Council, announced at the gathering. “The center will ensure that Christians do not act out of order.”

Observing an increasing number of house churches, Muslim organizations have accused Bekasi Christians of aggressive proselytizing. The Rev. Simon Timorason of the West Java Christian Communication Forum (FKKB), however, told Compass that most Christians in the area do not proselytize and meet only in small home fellowships due to the lack of officially recognized worship venues.

Many Christian seminary graduates prefer to remain on Java rather than relocate to distant islands, Timorason added, making West Java the ideal place to launch new home-based fellowships for different denominations. But neighbors see only the multiplication of churches, he said, and therefore suspect Muslims are converting to the Christian faith.

“The ideal solution is to have one building with a permit to be used by different denominations in each housing complex,” Timorason said. “If every denomination wants their own church in the same area, it’s a problem.”


Declaration of Intent

Kanti Prajogo, chairman of the Congress committee, had hoped to present a written declaration of intent to city officials at the mosque gathering, but officials did not respond to his invitation, according to The Jakarta Post.

Around 200 people attended the June 20 Congress, representing local organizations such as the Bekasi Interfaith Dialogue Forum, the Bekasi Movement Against Apostasy, the local chapters of Muhammadiyah and the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) – two of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations – and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), well known for its aggressive opposition to Christians and other non-Muslim groups.

Government officials on Monday (June 28) called for the FPI to be declared a forbidden organization, claiming that FPI members were implicated in “too many” violent incidents.

“We are not concerned about their mission,” legislator Eva Kusuma Sundari reportedly said at a press conference in Jakarta, “but we are concerned about the way they implement their goals.”

A spokesman for another large organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said Tuesday (July 28) that despite one member being present at the congress in an unofficial capacity, NU had not approved the joint declaration, contradicting a statement made the previous day by Bekasi NU official Abul Mutholib Jaelani, who told The Jakarta Post that he had asked all 56 NU branches in the city to contribute at least 10 members to the youth army.


Contributing to Religious Conflict

Rapid residential and industrial development has created huge social problems in Bekasi. Sociologist Andi Sopandi of Bekasi Islamic University told The Jakarta Post that the call for sharia was a warning signal, and that local officials should urgently pursue dialogue between Muslim and Christian leaders.

Locals and newcomers will get along well only if they share similar basic values, particularly religious ones, Sopandi reportedly said, pointing to sharp disputes over the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Jejalen Jaya sub-district earlier this year as an example.

A neighbor of the church confessed to The Jakarta Post that local clerics had asked him and other residents to sign a petition against constructing the HKBP church building and threatened not to pray at their funerals if they failed to cooperate; the majority of his neighbors signed the document under duress.

Under a 2006 Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB), at least 60 local residents must approve the establishment of a house of worship, whether a mosque or a church. The congregation must also have at least 90 members and obtain letters of recommendation from the local interfaith communication forum (FKUB) and religious affairs office before gaining final approval from district officials.

These terms make it virtually impossible for churches in Bekasi to obtain building permits. Bekasi regency has a population of 1.9 million, of which 98.2 percent are Muslim, according to 2006 data from the Bekasi Regency Religious Affairs office. Protestants, who form 0.67 percent (approximately 12,700 people) of the population, and Catholics who make up 0.55 percent, are served by only 16 officially recognized churches in seven of the 23 sub-districts.

Sudarno Soemodimedjo, deputy chief of the Bekasi FKUB, told The Jakarta Post in February that even if a church construction committee gained the approval of 60 local residents, the FKUB would not issue a letter of recommendation if there were any public objections.

“The SKB orders us to maintain public order, which means we have to refuse the establishment of a house of worship we believe may trigger a conflict in the future,” he said.

As a result, many Christians meet in unrecognized worship venues, giving Muslim groups legal grounds to oppose church gatherings.

“If the SKB was applied consistently, many mosques that were built without permits would have to close,” Timorason told Compass.

The government wants each new settlement to have a place of worship, he added, “but it’s always a mosque. There should be one of each to be fair.”

“Violations against freedom of religion remain rampant [in Indonesia],” confirmed the chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, who goes by the single name of Hendardi, at a press conference announcing the release of its January 2010 “Report on the Condition of Religious and Faith Freedom in Indonesia.”

“This is mostly because the government is half-hearted in its upholding of the right to worship,” he said.

Of 139 violations recorded by the institute last year, West Java took first place with 57 incidents, followed closely by Jakarta at 38.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslim Mob in Pakistan Wounds Christian Family

Assailants threaten to charge mentally ill son with ‘blasphemy’ if victims pursue justice.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, January 4 (CDN) — Infuriated by an alleged anti-Islamic comment by a mentally ill man, more than a dozen Muslims attacked his Christian family here last week, beating his 20-year-old sister unconscious and breaking her leg.

The woman’s father, Aleem Mansoor, said his daughter Elishba Aleem went unconscious after being struck in the head with an iron rod in the Dec. 28 attack. Mansoor said a Muslim known as Mogal beat him and his daughter with the rod on the street in front of their apartment home after falsely accusing his 32-year old son, who suffers from schizophrenia, of blasphemy.

“Elishba shouted, ‘Father look! He is going to hit you,’ and she came somewhat in front and the rod hit her head,” Mansoor told Compass. “She touched her head, and her hand was covered with blood.”

After she fell unconscious, the assailants began striking her on her legs and back, Mansoor said.

“As soon as the mob realized that Elishba was totally unconscious, they shouted that the girl was dead and fled from the scene,” he said.

Elishba Aleem had rushed down from the family’s third-floor apartment in Iqbal Town, Islamabad and was attacked when she pleaded for the mob to stop beating her father, who received five stitches for a hand wound. With iron rods and cricket bats, the mob also injured Mansoor’s wife Aqsa and his sister-in-law Aileen George. Another of Mansoor’s sons, 24-year-old Shazir Aleem, saw the assault from the apartment and also was beaten when he hurried down.

“When Shazir’s wife Sanna saw that her husband was being beaten, she rushed down with [infant daughter] Hanna in her arms and pleaded with them, ‘Why are you beating my husband?’” Mansoor said. “Someone in the mob snatched Hanna from Sanna and threw her on the ground, and then those beasts began beating Sanna as well.”

The baby girl escaped serious injury.

Initially the assailants had attacked Mansoor as he tried to leave home with his son Shumail Aleem, whom he intended to take to police to clear up accusations by shopkeeper Muhammad Naveed that he had spoken ill of Islam.

As Mansoor reached his car, however, about a dozen men with cricket bats and metal rods got out of a parked Suzuki van and surrounded them, he said, and within 10 minutes more than 100 angry Muslims had joined Naveed, his other brothers and his father, Mogal.

“Naveed shouted, ‘Why are you people looking at these choohras [derogatory term for Christians]? Catch them and kill them,’” Mansoor said. “My wife Aqsa and sister-in-law Aileen George threw their doppatas [Indian head coverings] at Naveed’s and others’ feet to humbly request that they not attack us, but they refused to listen. They began beating all of us with rods and cricket bats.”

Area Muslims resent that the family has a car and is well-off, Mansoor said.

“They say Christians should be suppressed and kept under a tight control,” he said. “They think Christians should salute them when they pass by them.”

His son Shumail has been under medical treatment for schizophrenia for more than five years, he said, and because of his condition he does not work.

“As long as Shumail takes medicine, there is no one nicer than him on the earth, but if he is not taking the medicine then he is the worst creature,” Mansoor said.

Mansoor’s daughter, a first-year college student, received treatment at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) and eventually regained consciousness, though she remains in intense pain. Mansoor said members of the Muslim mob ensured that she did not receive a medical-legal certificate documenting her condition. 

When Mansoor told Naveed and others that he would take them to court over the attack, his Muslim adversaries said he would fail because they had paid PIMS officials 50,000 rupees (US$600) to withhold the medical report on his daughter’s injuries. He said they also told him that they had paid off officers at the Shehzad Town Police Station to pressure the family to drop the case with an out-of-court settlement.

“The assistant sub-inspector, Ghulam Gilani, of Shehzad Town Police Station, called my wife and told her that if the family pursued the case of assault on us, then we would be implicated in the blasphemy case, which would have serious consequences for us,” Mansoor said.

Gilani and hospital officials were not immediately available for comment.

‘Blasphemy’ Accusation

The comment said to have triggered the violence was uttered at a nearby general store, where Shumail Aleem had gone to buy cigarettes at about 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 28.

Dec. 28 was Islam’s 10th of Muharram, or Yom-e-Ashura, when Shiite Muslims mourn the death of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. Pakistan’s population is made up primarily of Sunni Muslims, who also honor the day on the claim that Moses fasted on that day to express gratitude to God for freeing the Israelites from Egypt.

At the store an elderly Christian man known as Baba Sadiq asked Shumail Aleem why movie channels were not being shown on the store’s cable-fed TV.

“Shumail told him, ‘Are Muslims out of their minds? Why would they show movie channels on Ashura?’” Mansoor said.

The comment apparently supported Naveed’s decision to refrain from showing films on the Muslim holy day, but the shopkeeper began beating Shumail Aleem, demanding to know why he had profaned Hussein’s name, Mansoor said.

Two weeks prior, Mansoor said, Naveed and his brothers had beaten a Christian boy so severely that when he bled a piece of flesh issued from his nostrils.

“Shumail had seen this all, and had protested with Naveed over this, and when he came home he was very upset over the beating and repeatedly asked his mother to go and ask Naveed about it,” Mansoor said. “We think that Naveed bore a grudge because of Shumail’s inquiry and protest about that beating of a Christian.”

Mansoor said that after Naveed severely beat him, Shumail Aleem returned when the rest of the family was not at home, as several had taken Mansoor’s 3-month-old granddaughter Hanna to the doctor. When they returned at 9:45 p.m., Mansoor said, he found several things in the house “thrown around or broken.”

A neighbor told them that police and about two dozen men had come searching for Shumail Aleem – who had hid in an upper storeroom – because Naveed had accused him of blasphemy. 

“We went to Naveed, who was at his shop, and inquired what had happened,” Mansoor said. “He told us that Shumail had tried to steal several things from the store and also damaged several things, and worst of all that he profaned Imam Hussein. My wife told Naveed that he knew that Shumail was mentally ill so he should have waited for us, and that we would have paid the damage, but that there was no need to go to the police.”

Naveed told them that whether their son was mentally ill did not matter, that he had filed a police report – which later proved to be untrue – and that they would search relentlessly for Shumail Aleem, Mansoor said.

The mob stopped pursuing members of Mansoor’s family only after the intervention of Pakistan People’s Party politician Malik Amir, he said, but neither police nor the hospital has cooperated with him in legal matters. An influential Muslim in the area, Raja Aftaab, is also urging the family to settle out of court, he added.

“My stance is that the entire mob that attacked us should come to our house and apologize in front of all the neighbors, and then I will start negotiations with them,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Accused Pakistani Christian Says Muslims Tried to Coerce Him

Freed on bail, Naveed Masih on trial for killing Muslim in Islamist attack on Gojra.

LAHORE, Pakistan, December 29 (CDN) — A Pakistani Christian accused of killing a Muslim during the Aug. 1 Islamist attack on Christians in Gojra said he was arrested and tortured only because he was a key witness of the mob assault that left at least seven Christians burned to death.

Naveed Masih, released on bail on Wednesday (Dec. 23), told Compass that several Muslims have offered him large amounts of money to alter his testimony regarding the assault in Gojra, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Faisalabad in Punjab Province. The mob attack, prompted by calls from Muslim clerics spreading a false rumor of “blasphemy” of the Quran, included banned Islamic terrorist groups and resulted in the looting of more than 100 houses and the burning of 50 of them; at least 19 people were injured.

Masih said one of the Muslims accused in the attack, Qadir Awan, approached him at an early court hearing and invited him to come to his house to strike a cash-for-testimony deal.

“He said that I could make lots of money because I was the witness of the ransacking, but I feared God,” the 32-year-old Masih said. “Because I was not prepared to take money, he had me implicated in the counter-charges.”

He said that several other Muslims contacted him in jail to tell him that they could help him.

“I told them that my brothers and sisters in Pakistan and abroad are more than enough to help me,” he said. “I said, ‘You take care of yourself – you people beg our brothers and sisters in the United States for aid and financial assistance to run the country, how is it that you can help me?’”

Fearing for his life now that he is out on bail, Masih said he has asked several organizations for assistance and, assuming he is acquitted, eventually for safe passage out of Pakistan.

“I would not be left alive if I live here in Pakistan,” he said.

In counter-charges filed as a cover for accused Muslims after Christians filed charges, he said, 129 people including Bishop of Gojra John Samuel were accused in a First Information Report (FIR), yet only Masih and his brother Nauman Masih were arrested. The Faisalabad Anti-Terrorism Court released the 25-year-old Nauman Masih on bail in October.

The Lahore High Court granted bail to Naveed Masih last week after the Faisalabad Anti-Terrorism Court had denied it to him in October. Naveed Masih is accused of killing one of the assailants in the Gojra attacks, Muhammad Asif. He is said to have fired warning shots from a rooftop into the air and at the feet of the approaching Muslim mob to try to disperse them, but both brothers deny using any weapons.

The brothers gave shelter to 300 people during the attacks; they were arrested in early September initially for “rioting with deadly weapons and spreading terror with firing.”

Naveed Masih said police knew the counter-charges filed by Muslims nearly two months after the Aug. 1 attack were entirely concocted, but that they arrested and tortured him anyway.

“When I was arrested, the policemen said, ‘Catch this choohra [a racial slur typically used against Punjabi Christians],’” he told Compass. “They asked me which organization I belonged to, what my mission was and who had sent me on this mission.”

Authorities beat him the first several days in jail, he said.

“They blindfolded me and hung me in a dark well, and sometimes I hung all night upside down without clothes,” he said. “They also kept me hungry and tried to force me to confess that some religious organization funded me to fire a weapon and instigate Muslims.”

Trial Strategies

Akbar Munawar Durrani, an attorney for the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, said that the prosecutor in the trial has told the court that Christians were the ones who instigated Muslims by firing weapons, and that for this reason Asif died.

“I told the court,” Durrani said, “that it is strange that two days before the Aug. 1 incident, dozens of houses of Christians were burned in [nearby] Korian village, and then in this incident of Aug. 1 more than 100 houses of Christians were burned, and the prosecution keeps trumpeting this claim that Christians were the aggressors.”

Durrani said that when Lahore High Court Chief Justice Khawaja Sharif asked Investigation Officer Muhammad Aslam about his findings, Aslam told the court that if Christians hadn’t provoked Muslims then nothing would have happened. The judge asked Aslam how many Christians and how many Muslims died, Durrani said, to which the officer replied one Muslim and eight Christians.

“Still you say that Christians were the aggressors,” the judge told Aslam in a reprimanding tone.

Durrani, an executive member of the Supreme Court Bar Association, said he told the court that Masih was implicated in the killing of Asif only because he was one of two witnesses in the FIR filed against the Muslims. If Masih hadn’t defended Christians that day, he told the court, then the Christian Colony in Gojra would have suffered much more harm.

Masih said that he had learned that during the Aug. 1 attack, a member of the banned terrorist group Sipah-e-Sahaba stopped the motorbike he was riding, took gas out of it and set houses on fire.

Nauman Masih has told Compass that of the 17 Muslims named in the FIR on the Aug. 1 attack, only one, Abdul Khalid Kashmiri, was in jail. Kashmiri has offered 1 million rupees (US$12,500) if the Christian complainants would withdraw the case, he added.

The rest of the Muslim assailants are still at large, and sources said police have no intention of arresting them.

Naveed Masih said he learned that even before he was sent to jail, inmates were murmuring that he had killed a Muslim during the mob attack.

“I told them that they only talked about the Muslim who actually came to attack and got killed, but they never mentioned eight Christians who had died during that rampage,” he said. “‘Christians are also human beings,’ I told them, ‘why don’t you count those who were killed by Muslims?’”

He said Muslim inmates often asked him “nonsense questions,” but that he always answered them sensibly.

“I am sure that the Holy Spirit helped me answering them, because once they had asked any such questions, then they never again raised such questions,” he said.

Masih said police stopped torturing him after the first several days in jail. He said he continually prayed for God to free him, as well as for all Christians who supported him and his brother through their ordeal.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Plot Targeting Turkey’s Religious Minorities Allegedly Discovered

CD indicates naval officers planned violence against non-Muslim communities.

ISTANBUL, December 16 (CDN) — ISTANBUL, December 16 (Compass Direct News) – Chilling allegations emerged last month of a detailed plot by Turkish naval officers to perpetrate threats and violence against the nation’s non-Muslims in an effort to implicate and unseat Turkey’s pro-Islamic government.

Evidence put forth for the plot appeared on an encrypted compact disc discovered last April but was only recently deciphered; the daily Taraf newspaper first leaked details of the CD’s contents on Nov. 19.

Entitled the “Operation Cage Action Plan,” the plot outlines a plethora of planned threat campaigns, bomb attacks, kidnappings and assassinations targeting the nation’s tiny religious minority communities – an apparent effort by military brass to discredit the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The scheme ultimately called for bombings of homes and buildings owned by non-Muslims, setting fire to homes, vehicles and businesses of Christian and Jewish citizens, and murdering prominent leaders among the religious minorities.

Dated March 2009, the CD containing details of the plot was discovered in a raid on the office of a retired major implicated in a large illegal cache of military arms uncovered near Istanbul last April. Once deciphered, it revealed the full names of 41 naval officials assigned to carry out a four-phase campaign exploiting the vulnerability of Turkey’s non-Muslim religious minorities, who constitute less than 1 percent of the population.

A map that Taraf published on its front page – headlined “The Targeted Missionaries” – was based on the controversial CD documents. Color-coded to show all the Turkish provinces where non-Muslims lived or had meetings for worship, the map showed only 13 of Turkey’s 81 provinces had no known non-Muslim residents or religious meetings.

The plan identified 939 non-Muslim representatives in Turkey as possible targets.

“If even half of what is written in Taraf is accurate, everybody with a conscience in this country has to go mad,” Eyup Can wrote in his Hurriyet column two days after the news broke.

The day after the first Taraf report, the headquarters of the Turkish General Staff filed a criminal complaint against the daily with the Justice Ministry, declaring its coverage a “clear violation” of the laws protecting ongoing prosecution investigations from public release.

Although the prime minister’s office the next day confirmed that the newly revealed “Cage” plot was indeed under official investigation, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Taraf’s public disclosure of the plan as “interfering” and “damaging” to the judicial process and important sectors of the government.

But when the judiciary began interrogating a number of the named naval suspects and sent some of them to jail, most Turkish media – which had downplayed the claims – began to accept the plot’s possible authenticity.

To date, at least 11 of the naval officials identified in the Cage documents are under arrest, accused of membership in an illegal organization. They include a retired major, a lieutenant colonel, three lieutenant commanders, two colonels and three first sergeants.

The latest plot allegations are linked to criminal investigations launched in June 2007 into Ergenekon, an alleged “deep state” conspiracy by a group of military officials, state security personnel, lawyers and journalists now behind bars on charges of planning a coup against the elected AKP government.

Christian Murders Termed ‘Operations’

The plot document began with specific mention of the three most recent deadly attacks perpetrated against Christians in Turkey, cryptically labeling them “operations.”

Initial Turkish public opinion had blamed Islamist groups for the savage murders of Italian Catholic priest Andrea Santoro (February 2006), Turkish Armenian Agos newspaper editor Hrant Dink (January 2007) and two Turkish Christians and a German Christian in Malatya (April 2007). But authors of the Cage plan complained that AKP’s “intensive propaganda” after these incidents had instead fingered the Ergenekon cabal as the perpetrators.

“The Cage plan demanded that these ‘operations’ be conducted in a more systematic and planned manner,” attorney Orhan Kemal Cengiz wrote in Today’s Zaman on Nov. 27. “They want to re-market the ‘black propaganda’ that Muslims kill Christians,” concluded Cengiz, a joint-plaintiff lawyer in the Malatya murder trial and legal adviser to Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches.

In the first phase of the Cage plot, officers were ordered to compile information identifying the non-Muslim communities’ leaders, schools, associations, cemeteries, places of worship and media outlets, including all subscribers to the Armenian Agos weekly. With this data, the second stage called for creating an atmosphere of fear by openly targeting these religious minorities, using intimidating letters and telephone calls, warnings posted on websites linked to the government and graffiti in neighborhoods where non-Muslims lived.

To channel public opinion, the third phase centered on priming TV and print media to criticize and debate the AKP government’s handling of security for religious minorities, to raise the specter of the party ultimately replacing Turkey’s secular laws and institutions with Islamic provisions.

The final phase called for planting bombs and suspicious packages near homes and buildings owned by non-Muslims, desecrating their cemeteries, setting fire to homes, vehicles and businesses of Christian and Jewish citizens, and even kidnapping and assassinating prominent leaders among the religious minorities.

Lawyer Fethiye Cetin, representing the Dink family in the Agos editor’s murder trial, admitted she was having difficulty even accepting the details of the Cage plot.

“I am engulfed in horror,” Cetin told Bianet, the online Independent Communications Network. “Some forces of this country sit down and make a plan to identify their fellow citizens, of their own country, as enemies! They will kill Armenians and non-Muslims in the psychological war they are conducting against the ones identified as their enemies.”

No Surprise to Christians

“We were not very shocked,” Protestant Pastor Ihsan Ozbek of the Kurtulus Churches in Ankara admitted to Taraf the day after the news broke.

After the Malatya murders, he stated, Christians had no official means to investigate their suspicions about the instigators, “and we could not be very brave . . . Once again the evidence is being seen, that it is the juntas who are against democracy who [have been] behind the propaganda in the past 10 years against Christianity and missionary activity.”

Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church also openly addressed the Cage plot, referring to recent incidents of intimidation against Christian and Jewish citizens in Istanbul’s Kurtulus and Adalar districts, as well as a previous raid conducted against the alumni of a Greek high school.

“At the time, we thought that they were just trying to scare us,” he told Today’s Zaman. Several of the jailed Ergenekon suspects now on trial were closely involved for years in protesting and slandering the Istanbul Patriarchate, considered the heart of Eastern Orthodoxy’s 300 million adherents. As ultranationalists, they claimed the Orthodox wanted to set up a Vatican-style entity within Turkey.

Last summer 90 graves were desecrated in the Greek Orthodox community’s Balikli cemetery in the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul. The city’s 65 non-Muslim cemeteries are not guarded by the municipality, with their maintenance and protection left to Greek, Armenian and Jewish minorities.

As details continued to emerge and national debates raged for more than a week over the Cage plan in the Turkish media, calls came from a broad spectrum of society to merge the files of the ongoing Dink and Malatya murder trials with the Ergenekon file. The Turkish General Staff has consistently labeled much of the media coverage of the Ergenekon investigations as part of smear campaign against the fiercely secular military, which until the past two years enjoyed virtual impunity from civilian court investigations.

According to Ria Oomen-Ruijten, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, the long-entrenched role of the military in the Turkish government is an “obstacle” for further democratization and integration into the EU.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians Accused of Desecrating Quran Freed in Pakistan

Country’s notorious ‘blasphemy’ law used against innocent father, daughter.

LAHORE, Pakistan, December 16 (CDN) — A Christian in Faisalabad district and his 20-year-old daughter were released on Monday (Dec. 14) after 14 grueling months in jail on false charges of blaspheming the Quran.

Khalil Tahir, attorney for Gulsher Masih and his daughter Ashyana Gulsher (known as Sandal), said the case was typical of the way Pakistan’s blasphemy laws can be used to harass innocent Christians.

“Christians are the soft targets, and most of the people implicated in these inhumane laws are Christians,” Tahir said. “We Christians are fighting for the same, noble goal – to provide justice to the victims of blasphemy laws.”

Masih said that inmates beat him at least five times since he was arrested on Oct. 23, 2008. His daughter was arrested two weeks earlier, on Oct. 10.

“These long 14 months seemed like ages,” Masih told Compass. “There was one inmate, Ghulam Fareed, a rich man, who always harassed me, trying to coerce me to convert to Islam by saying he would make me rich and would send me abroad.”

Fareed, who also promised high quality education for Masih’s children, joined with Islamic extremists jailed for terrorist acts to beat him in an effort to force him to “come into the fold of Islam,” Masih said. While in jail, he said, his wife told him that their daughter had been beaten several times by the superintendent of police.

Masih and his daughter were charged under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code for blaspheming the Quran. Before charges were filed in October 2008, Masih said an initial incident occurred on Aug. 25, when Ashyana Gulsher found some burned pages of the Quran in a garbage dump outside their community of Chak No. 57, Chak Jhumra in the district of Faisalabad.

Masih said she handed the charred pages to a woman, Lubana Taj, saying, “These are the holy page of your Quran and I found them in the garbage, so you take it.”

There were still some pages left, which she gave to their neighbor, Khalida Rafiq, who burned them, he said.

“She had borrowed wheat from us a few weeks ago, and when my wife demanded it back, Khalida Rafiq said that we had burned pages of the Quran and was now accusing us of taking wheat,” Masih said. “Some other women of the village also accused my children of making paper airplanes of the pages of the Quran.”

The escalating conflict was defused with the help of other neighbors who knew the truth, he said, and local Muslim cleric Amam Hafiz Muhammad Ali also intervened, saying Masih’s daughter had done a good deed and questioning why the neighbor women were repaying her with evil.

“We thought that the matter was buried, but it arose again on Oct. 7, 2008,” Masih said. On that day 20-year-old Muhammad Qasim went throughout the village on bicycle exclaiming that Christians had burned the Quran, Masih said. Upon hearing this, village landlord Rana Sarwar called Masih and told him that his children had burned the Quran and had used pages to make paper airplanes.

“I told them that I was working in Asghar Christian Colony and never knew about the incident, and the son who had been accused of blasphemy had gone to school,” Masih said.

His accusers were unmoved, he said.

“In the evening when I was returning home, I heard announcements from several mosques that Christians had burned the Quran,” he said. “After hearing the announcement, people began pouring in. These announcements were made by Tariq son of Hafeez, Maqbool son of Hafeez and Maulana Tawaseel Bajwa.”

When Masih called emergency police, they arrested him and sent him to the Jhumra police station, Faisalabad.

“The police asked me where my children were, and when I told them that the children were in the village, the police went back to arrest them,” he said. “Rana Sarwar, Wajid Khan and Rana Naeem Khan came into the police station and argued that my children had blasphemed, so why was I the one being beaten? I told Rana Sarwar in front of the police that if my children have done this, then I was ready to bear consequences.”

Police told them that the crowd outside wanted to hang him and that this was why they had arrested him. Masih said that the next day Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Yousuf Zai came and asked him why he had committed blasphemy.

“Rana Sarwar then told the DSP that it was all a political ploy, and that I had been implicated in the case for voting for the opposition party,” he said. “If that day those Christian Members of Parliamentary Assembly had spoken up, then the police complaint wouldn’t have been registered against me.”

Masih added that the station house officer felt that he was innocent but had become legally entangled due to lack of support from the community. Masih said that the next day, Oct. 8, a few Muslims gave conflicting statements against him when charges were filed.

“One said he saw me burning the pages of the Quran at 10 a.m., the other said that he saw me burning the pages at 12 p.m. and still another said that he saw me burning the pages of the Quran at 2 p.m.,” he said. “When I was sent in jail, the investigation office swore that I was innocent.”

In a further contradiction, the complainants accused him of cutting up pages of the Quran and tossing them in the air, not burning them, Tahir said.

The complainant in the case was Mohammad Farooq Alam, and other prosecution witnesses named were Mohammad Maqbool Ahmad and Mohammad Akber, according to Tahir.

Masih said that initially he appeared before Judge Zulfikar Lon, but that whenever a judge asked for witnesses, he was transferred.

“In this manner eight months passed, and then Judge Raja Mohammad Ghazanfar came” and refused to be transferred, Masih said.

After Tahir’s cross-examination of witnesses, Ghazanfar dropped all charges and ordered their release.

“During cross examination, I proved that the whole case was concocted, frivolous, fake and that the charges against the accused Christian brother were unfounded,” Tahir said.

Tahir said that he had provided only legal assistance to the victims, with Johnson Michael, chairman of the Bishop John Joseph Shaheed Trust, providing paralegal assistance. An MPA in the Punjab Parliament, Tahir is the body’s secretary for Human Rights and Minority Affairs and also serves as executive director of advocacy group Action Against Discriminatory Laws Trust Pakistan.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Some 59 Christians are released from jails in Pakistan

On Friday, November 13, 2009, the sun came up with new hopes in the lives of 59 Christians in Pakistan after the Pakistani-based Christian organization, “Life for All,” had made a determined effort to give these people their lives back, reports Xavier Patras William, special to ASSIST News Service.

The imprisoned Christians, who have been in various jails in Pakistan, got the welcome news of their freedom after hard work made by Mr. Rizwan Paul, President “Life for All,” who had presented a petition to Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, President of Pakistan, for the pardon of these Christians who he stated had been “falsely accused of minor crimes.”

The President reviewed the petition and approved the release of the prisoners who had been accused of minor crimes, and he vowed to review the release of other prisoners after reviewing the nature of their crimes.

The prisoners that were freed had been incarcerated in Adyala Jail, Rawalpindi; Kot Lakhpat Jail, Lahore; Sialkot Jail, Sialkot; as well as Peshawar Jail and the Karachi Jail.

Now they are free, and can breathe and move freely.

Extremely emotional scenes were seen outside the jails when the prisoners were released. Family members were present to greet their loved ones and they thanked “Life for All” for their efforts.

Representatives from “Life for All” were present at the respective jails to receive the released. They took the record of the released and then handed over them over to their families.

However, there are still more than 2,500 Christians in jails all over Pakistan who cannot afford the legal assistance for their release. There are many church-based and Christian/Muslim civil society organizations who claim to provide legal aid assistance to Christians and other poor people, but the truth is that the poor in Pakistan are implicated in false cases and end up in jail for years.

“Life for All” did not get any local / foreign aid for the release of these Christians.

Rizwan stressed that the Christian organizations “need to work together for the development of the community” in Pakistan.

Report from the Christian Telegraph