‘Blasphemy Laws’ Used to Jail Elderly Christian in Pakistan

‘Blasphemy Laws’ Used to Jail Elderly Christian in Pakistan

Muslim vying for same piece of land as Christian accuses him of speaking ill of Muhammad.

FAISALABAD, Pakistan, June 29 (CDN) — A Muslim vying with a Christian for a parcel of land here has accused the elderly man of “blaspheming” Islam’s prophet Muhammad, which is punishable by death or life imprisonment, according to the Christian Lawyers’ Foundation (CLF).

Jhumray police on June 19 arrested Rehmat Masih of village No. 165/RB Jandawali in Faisalabad district under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s controversial “blasphemy laws,” and he was sent to Faisalabad District Jail on judicial remand by Magistrate Muhammad Sajawal.

Section 295-C states that “whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punishable with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall be liable to fine.”

Christian sources said Masih, who suffers from arthritis, is 85 years old, though the First Information Report against him lists his age as 73.

The CLF’s Rai Navid Zafar Bhatti told Compass that hard-line Muslim Muhammad Sajjid Hameed filed the charges after learning that he would not be able to secure the Punjab Province land.

“He used the weapon of last resort, the controversial Blasphemy Laws’ Section 295-C, which preponderantly unbalances the scales of justice,” Bhatti said.

CLF President Khalid Gill said local Christian residents led by Masih had applied to the Punjab government to secure it for construction of a Christian residential area, and Hameed also had applied for the same parcel for commercial projects.

Hameed has testified in court that Masih made derogatory remarks about Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and Khadija, the first wife of the founder of the religion, Bhatti said.

Gill said Masih has testified that he said nothing “humiliating” about Muhammad or Khadija.

“I am not a blasphemer, nor I can think of such a sinister thing, which is against the teachings of Christ,” Masih testified, according to Gill.

A CLF fact-finding team found that in April the frail Masih had argued with Hameed and several other Muslim hardliners – Shahbaz Khalid, Afzaal Bashir, Muhammad Aamer, Akber Ali and Asghar Ali – about the Virgin Mary, said Gill.

“At that time the elderly Masih, who at present is languishing in Faisalabad District Jail and facing discriminatory behavior and apathy of Muslim inmates and jail wardens, did not know that this altercation with Muslim men would lead to imprisonment for him,” Gill said.

Three of Hameed’s friends who backed him during the argument, 25-year-old Aamer, 45-year-old Akber Ali and 40-year-old Asghar Ali, have testified in support of Hameed’s accusation, according to Bhatti.

The CLF fact-finding team, led by Babu William Rose, a local Faisalabad Christian representative, found that Masih was also accused because he was a politically active member of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam party (PML-Q), while Hameed supports the PML-Nawaz Sharif (PML-N).

Representatives of the National Commission for Justice and Peace also asserted that Masih’s political views played a role in Hameed having him jailed under Pakistan’s blasphemy statues, saying that Hameed was using the power of the PML-N, which rules Punjab province, to implicate Masih in the case.

Gill and Azher Kaleem of the CLF sternly condemned the incarceration of Masih and said that the blasphemy laws must be repealed at once as they are widely used to take vengeance in personal or land disputes.

Section 295-A of the blasphemy laws prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment.

Masih is the father of seven adult daughters and four grown sons.

Report from Compass Direct News

Pakistan’s ‘Blasphemy’ Laws Claim Three More Christians

Cafeteria worker, couple convicted without basis under widely condemned statutes.

KARACHI, Pakistan, March 10 (CDN) — A Christian couple was sentenced to 25 years in prison for violating Pakistan’s widely condemned “blasphemy” laws last week, and another Christian convicted without basis under the same statutes the previous week received the same sentence.

In Kasur, Ruqqiya Bibi and her husband Munir Masih were sentenced on March 3 to 25 years of prison under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code for defiling the Quran. They had been arrested by Mustafabad police in December 2008 for touching Islam’s sacred scripture without ritually washing.

Punishment for defiling the Quran is “life imprisonment,” which means 25 years in Pakistan.

Prosecution witnesses accused Ruqqiya and her husband of using the Quran as part of black magic, and that in the process Ruqqiya had touched it without it without ritual cleansing. They also claimed that the couple had written the creed of Islam, or Kalima-e-Tayyaba, on the walls of their house.

Tahir Gul, a lawyer of the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), told Compass that the Christian couple had not used the Quran for black magic. He said the matter arose out of a quarrel between Muslim and Christian children and turned into a clash of their parents. Because Pakistan’s blasphemy statues are so commonly used to settle such personal scores, they are widely condemned by human rights advocates and legislators around the world.

After police investigation, the couple was further charged under Section 295-C of the blasphemy laws, which criminalizes any derogatory remark – spoken, written or by visible representation – against Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. The minimum punishment for such remarks is also “life imprisonment” of 25 years, but the law also allows for the death penalty.

Gul said the court had absolved the couple of charges under Section 295-C, as no evidence was found of them blaspheming Muhammad. He said that when the crime report was initially filed, the couple was accused only of defiling the Quran and not of blaspheming Muhammad.

The attorney said the case would be appealed in the Lahore High Court.

In Karachi, the Additional District and Sessions Court on Feb. 25 sentenced another Christian, Qamar David, to 25 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees (US$1,170) after he was convicted without basis of sending blasphemous text messages in May 2006.

David was convicted under Section 295-A of the blasphemy statues for “injuring religious feelings of any community,” and also under Section 295-C for derogatory remarks against Muhammad. Maximum punishment for violation of Section 295-A is life imprisonment, and for Section 295-C the maximum punishment is death, though life imprisonment is also possible. David received the sentence of life in prison.

His lawyer, Pervaiz Aslam Chaudhry, told Compass that the conviction was without basis as all 16 witnesses at the trial said that not David but the owner of the cell phone, who is also the subscriber to the SIM card through which they received the blasphemous messages, was guilty. The SIM card and the cell phone are owned by a Muslim, Munawar Ahmad, who was named with David, he said.

“In spite of these facts, the court has absolved him [Ahmad] of all charges,” Chaudhry said.

In May 2006, two First Information Reports (FIR) were filed against David in Karachi under sections 295-A and 295-C. The first was filed under both sections by Khursheed Ahmed Khan, a travel agent, at the Sadar Police Station in Clifton. David still awaits trial on the second FIR, also under sections 295-A and 295-C, filed by Hafiz Muhammad Hamid at the Azizabad police station in Gulberg Town.

David has never been granted bail since his arrest in 2006, and he is in Central Jail in Landhi. Chaudhry said that he would file an application in the Sindh High Court for a hearing on the second case, because no trial date has been given despite the lapse of three and a half years.

“I feel that Qamar will also be convicted in the lower court again, because we see no signs of impartiality,” he added.

David’s family members criticized the blasphemy laws and his conviction, holding a protest on Feb. 28 with the help of Save the Churches’ Property Welfare Association and the United Church of Christ. They said that David was innocent and that the court was biased.

Chaudhry said that David lived a harsh life in the jail, where he was often threatened and once attacked by fellow inmates. The attorney said his client has faced obstacles in pursuing his case, and that extremists accused him of being a supporter of “blasphemers” because he was a Christian.

“Muslims raised slogans of triumph of Islam outside the court premises on the day David was convicted,” Chaudhry said. “The judgment was expected against David due to pressure on the judge, Jangu Khan.”

David had worked in the cafeteria of a hospital in Karachi, where he served drinks and food to customers, before he was accused in May 2006 of sending blasphemous messages.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Church Bomber in Nepal Repents, Admits India Link

Graciousness of Christians leads head of terrorist group to join prison fellowship.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, December 30 (CDN) — Disillusioned with Hindu nationalists, the leader of a militant Hindu extremist group told Compass that contact with Christians in prison had led him to repent of bombing a Catholic church here in May 2008.

Ram Prasad Mainali, the 37-year-old chief of the Nepal Defense Army (NDA), was arrested on Sept. 5 for exploding a bomb in the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, in the Lalitpur area of Kathmandu on May 23. The explosion killed a teenager and a newly-married woman from India’s Bihar state and injured more than a dozen others.

In Kathmandu’s jail in the Nakkhu area, Mainali told Compass he regretted bombing the church.

“I bombed the church so that I could help re-establish Nepal as a Hindu nation,” he said. “There are Catholic nations, there are Protestant nations and there are also Islamic nations, but there is no Hindu nation. But I was wrong. Creating a religious war cannot solve anything, it will only harm people.”

Mainali, who is married and has two small daughters, added that he wanted members of all religions to be friendly with one other.

Asked how the change in him came about, he said he had been attending a prison fellowship since he was transferred to Nakkhu Jail from Central Jail four months ago.

“I have been reading the Bible also, to know what it says,” he said.

Of the 450 prisoners in the Nakkhu Jail, around 150 attend the Nakkhu Gospel Church inside the prison premises.

Mainali said he began reading the Bible after experiencing the graciousness of prison Christians.

“Although I bombed the church, Christians come to meet me everyday,” he said. “No rightwing Hindu has come to meet me even once.”

Jeevan Rai Majhi, leader of the inmates of Nakkhu Jail and also a leader of the church, confirmed that Mainali had been attending the church, praying and reading the Bible regularly. Union of Catholic Asian News reported on Nov. 30 that Mainali had sent a handwritten letter to a monthly Christian newsmagazine in Nepal, Hamro Ashish (Our Blessing), saying he had repented of his deeds in the prison.

Asked if Nepal should be a Hindu nation, Mainali said he just wanted the country to become a monarchy again, “but not with Gyanendra as the king.” In 2006 a pro-democracy movement in Nepal led to the ouster of the army-backed regime of Hindu King Gyanendra, and Parliament proclaimed the Himalayan kingdom a secular, federal state.

Mainali said the NDA still exists but is not active. It was formed in New Delhi in 2007 at a meeting attended by a large number of Hindu nationalists from India, he said. Since bombing the church in Kathmandu, the group has threatened to drive all Christians from the country.

“The NDA was started in February or March 2007 at the Birla Mandir [a Hindu temple in central Delhi] at a meeting which was attended by many leaders from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad [World Hindu Council], the Bajrang Dal, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Shiv Sena party,” he said. Mainali declined to name the leaders of these Hindu extremist groups present at the meeting.

The NDA is also believed to be responsible for the killing of a Catholic priest, Father John Prakash Moyalan, principal of the Don Bosco educational institution in Dharan city in eastern Nepal, in June 2008.

Nepal was a Hindu monarchy until 1990, after which the king was forced to introduce political reforms mainly by Maoists (extreme Marxists). In 2006, Nepal adopted an interim constitution making it a secular nation, which infuriated Hindu nationalists in Nepal and India. In 2008 Nepal became a federal democratic republic.

Mainali said the NDA was receiving about 500,000 Nepalese rupees (US$6,590) every month from the organizations. He declined to divulge how the Hindu extremist groups in India funded the NDA. Mainali also said that the NDA bought arms from an Indian separatist militia in the northeastern state of Assam, the United Liberation Front of Asom or ULFA. Although most of the ULFA members are nominally Christian, he said, “they sold arms to us as a purely business deal.”

The ULFA is a banned organization in India and classified as a terrorist outfit since 1990. The U.S. Department of State has listed it under the “Other Groups of Concern” category.

Of the roughly 30 million people in Nepal, a meagre .5 percent are Christian, and over 80 percent are Hindu, according to the 2001 census.

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 

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 

Coptic Blogger in Egypt Threatens Hunger Strike

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

Coptic Blogger in Egypt Pressured to Convert in Prison

Christian critical of Islamization of society, Orthodox church jailed without charges.

ISTANBUL, October 31 (CDN) — A Coptic Christian blogger in Egypt entering his second year of prison without charge is being pressured to convert to Islam in exchange for his freedom, his attorneys said.

On Oct. 3, 2008, Hani Nazeer, a 28-year-old high school social worker from Qena, Egypt and author of the blog “Karz El Hob” (“Love Cherries”), 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.

Gamel Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the group representing Nazeer, said Nazeer was arrested unfairly and now is being coerced to abandon his faith.

“Hani complains about that, it happened, and it’s true,” said Eid. “But the police do it in a subtle way. They do it by inspiring the inmates to suggest to Nazeer that if he converts to Islam, police will work to get him out of prison.”

Nazeer is confined in what is commonly known as the “general population” area of the prison, meaning he is housed with both violent and non-violent felons. Nazeer told his attorneys he is often treated harshly. Despite this, Eid said Nazeer is constant in his faith.

A few days before his arrest, on Oct. 1, 2008, a group of young Muslims in Nag Hammadi saw 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 critical of Christianity by Yusuf Zidane that is famous in Egypt.

While Zidane’s critique of Christianity garnered him awards throughout the Arab world, locals protested the link to Utah’s site.

Insulting religion is considered a crime in Egypt, although typically the law is only enforced when Islam is criticized. Police have not publicly produced any evidence linking Nazeer to Utah’s work. After Nazeer was arrested, posts continued on Utah’s website. It is unclear if the teenagers who saw Nazeer’s website and were offended were students at his school.

Eid said the deeper issue was that Nazeer upset Islamic authorities by criticizing the increasing Islamization of Egyptian civil society and irked church leaders by lamenting political involvement of the Coptic Orthodox Church. In one post, Nazeer wrote said that a gathering of activists at a Coptic church was inappropriate because churches were meant to be venues for prayer, not for politics.

Police had detained Nazeer’s relatives at a police station and threatened to hold them until he came out of hiding, Eid said, and Nazeer turned himself into a police station in October 2008 – 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. According to Nazeer and the ANHRI, the bishop colluded with authorities to get rid of Nazeer, whose online criticism had become bothersome.

“[Kirollos] is the one who turned me in after he denounced me to security,” Nazeer told his attorneys. “He bluffed [that] we were going for a short investigation and it will be all over. Then I found out it was a charade to turn me in to state security.”

Eid claimed the arrest achieved two complementary goals for police and Kirollos – calming those protesting “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,” and silencing a blogger who had been critical of Islamic hardliners and the Coptic Orthodox Church.

All attempts to reach Kirollos 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.

Release Orders Invalidated

Nazeer’s attorneys are set to appeal his imprisonment on Sunday (Nov. 1), but it is unclear how or even if the appeal will affect his case. Courts have ordered Nazeer’s release several times before. The SSI has rendered the orders for release invalid by invoking the country’s longstanding emergency law, which supersedes court authority.

When local police execute a court order to release prisoners held under the 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.

Eid said Nazeer’s case is extremely difficult.

“Hani is in between the hate of the Islamists and the hate of the Christians,” he said. “The Islamists of course are against him, and the church [leadership] is against him, so he’s being badly squeezed between the two.”

Kalldas Fakhry Girgis, Nazeer’s cousin, saw him 15 days ago. Girgis said that despite Nazeer’s confinement, he is in good spirits. He remains strong in his faith and his convictions.

“He wants to know why he’s been arrested,” Girgis said about his cousin. “He’s hopeful. His morale is high. But he is feeling stressed.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Two Evangelists in Ethiopia Released from Prison

Judge acquits Christians falsely accused of insulting Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 28 (CDN) — The latest in a series of false charges against two Ethiopian evangelists was put to rest on Friday (Oct. 23), and they were released.

A court in Debiretabor, Ethiopia acquitted the two evangelists of insulting the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) in prison, an accusation made by fellow inmates after the two were jailed on false charges of offering money for people to convert. The charge that the two Christians insulted the EOC was orchestrated by EOC members both inside and outside the prison, according to area church leaders.

Temesgen Alemayehu and Tigist Welde Amanuel had been sentenced to prison for six months on the false charge of offering money to people to convert but successfully appealed the punishment; after a lower court in Amhara state had thrown out their appeal on Sept. 21, the State Supreme Court in Bahir Dar ordered them to be to be released after paying a 500 birr (US$40) fine.

Before they could be released, however, inmates signed a petition raising the second charge against Alemayehu and Amanuel. On this charge of insulting the EOC while in prison, the judge rejected witnesses’ testimony as contradictory and of no value.

“Thank you to those who prayed for us,” Alemayehu said after his release, adding that he was eager to return to ministry.

“The enemy has tried to frustrate us and delay our freedom,” said Amanuel. “But through prayers and God’s intervention, we are now released from prison. We thank those who prayed on our behalf.”

Alemayehu and Amanuel, of Wengel Lealem church in Addis Ababa, had gone to Debiretabor, Amhara state in July to help establish a church.

“Temesgen and Tigist are extremely happy to again reunite with the church,” said a Christian source, adding that the two evangelists would return to Addis Ababa.

On July 22 they had appeared at district court in Debiretabor to hear charges against them that they were offering money and gifts to people to change their religion; Christian sources said witnesses falsely testified to that effect. Members of the EOC produced the false witnesses, the sources said.

Alemayehu and Amanuel were incarcerated for three months and six days.

They would have been released after their sentences were reduced to the fines, but on Oct. 7 the district prosecutor claimed they would not appear for the next court date, and the judge decided to keep them in prison. Church leaders in Debiretabor said Alemayehu was suffering from kidney infections and had sought permission to get treatment, but prison officials refused.

Debiretabor is the seat for the south Gondar Zone administration in Amhara state. As in the rest of Amhara, Debiretabor’s population is predominantly EOC with hostile attitudes towards evangelicals.

The two Christians’ arrests stemmed from a July 19 incident in which passersby began to question them as they were preaching on a roadside. Christian sources said a heated argument led to a group attack on the two evangelists, wounding Alemayehu. Amanuel sustained minor injuries, the sources said .

Christian sources said a group within the EOC called “Mahibere Kidusan” (“Fellowship of Saints”) had incited members to attack the two evangelists as they were proclaiming Christ. The increasingly powerful group’s purpose is to counter all reform movements within the EOC and shield the denomination from outside threats.

In some cases, the sources said, EOC priests have urged attacks against Christians, and government authorities influenced by Mahibere Kidusan have infringed on Christians’ rights.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Prisoners Freed in Acteal, Mexico Case Yet to Return Home


Christians bear no grudges, fear no threats from accusers.

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico, October 12 (CDN) — Alonso Lopez Entzin, a Tzotzil-speaking Christian in Chiapas state, Mexico, spent 11 years and eight months in prison for a crime he did not commit. Accused of participating in the tragic “Acteal massacre” in December 1997 in which 45 persons died near San Cristobal de las Casas, he and more than 80 of his neighbors were summarily arrested and charged with the murders.On Aug. 12, the Federal Supreme Court of Mexico ordered that Lopez Entzin and 19 other indigenous men accused in the Acteal killings – 18 are Christian, including Lopez Entzin – be freed from El Amate Penal facility in Chiapas. Their release came as a surprise to him and his fellow prisoners, as well as to thousands of people in Mexico and around the world advocating their release.

Of the 18 Christians released, only five were Christians when they were arrested; the rest came to trust in Christ while in prison. At least 27 innocent men who were Christians at the time of their arrest remain in prison, according to advocacy organizations.

“I thank God that I have been granted freedom,” Lopez Entzin told Compass. “We are no longer imprisoned thanks to the power of God. There is no other person that has this kind of power, only God.”

The court is reviewing the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre. Six more defendants will be granted new trials.

“Right now we see the first fruits of our prayers,” said Tomas Perez Mendez, another of the 20 freed prisoners. “We are confident in the Lord that the rest of the brothers are going to obtain their freedom as well.”

Lopez Entzin added that winning their freedom will not be easy.

“When we were inside El Amate, we began to pray, fast and glorify our Lord Jesus Christ. There are thousands and thousands of brothers who prayed for us inside the jail – thank God He answered those prayers,” he said through tears. “That’s why those brothers who remain behind in El Amate believe that if God’s will is done, they will soon be free.”

Most of the remaining Acteal inmates are evangelical Protestant Christians sentenced to 25- and 36-year prison terms. For years, human rights advocates and legal experts have presented legal arguments showing that the men were convicted on dubious evidence. The district court of the state of Chiapas, however, has consistently ruled against the defendants in appeals.

Attorneys for the defendants finally succeeded in bringing the case before the Federal Supreme Court in Mexico City. The justices who reviewed the case found clear violations of due process and on Aug. 12 overturned the convictions in a 4-1 decision.

The court ruling stated that the decision was not a determination of the guilt or innocence of the men, only that their constitutional rights had been violated during their arrest and conviction.

Though grateful to be free at last, Agustin Gomez Perez admitted that prison was “very difficult, very difficult indeed.”

“There inside the jail, everybody loses,” Gomez Perez said. “I saw it. Many lost their wives, their families, their homes. In the years I was in jail I lost my son. It was May 7, 2005. Twelve families were traveling in a truck to visit us in El Amate. They had an accident, and my 3-year-old son Juan Carlos was killed.”

Inmates expressed gratitude for church groups and international organizations that lent support to their families during their incarceration. Some groups supplied chicks, piglets and coffee plants for wives and children to raise on family plots. A volunteer team of doctors and nurses from Veracruz provides free treatment to prisoners and their dependents.

The prisoners said that one of the greatest helps was regular visits from their families. International Christian organizations raised money for bus fares and chartered vehicles to ensure that the prisoners’ families, who could not otherwise afford the travel, saw their husbands and fathers as often as possible.

Normalcy Not Returned

Despite being freed, the 20 men have yet to resume normal life with their families.

“When I left jail, I didn’t think I would be stuck half-way home,” Gomez Perez said. “I was thinking I would come home and see my wife and children. But we haven’t got there. We are left here half-way home.”

“Half-way home” for the released men is the market district in hot, bustling Tuxtla Gutierrez. They are living in makeshift half-way houses provided by the federal government, awaiting resettlement on land that state authorities have promised them.

Compass met with seven of the former inmates in a rented building they occupy with their wives, children and, in some cases, grandchildren. The families share windowless, sparsely furnished rooms with bare cement floors. Government food rations sustain them. While the half-way house is better than prison, it is nothing like the lush, green Chiapas mountains to which they long to return.

The men agreed to the relocation scheme because the farms they worked before going to prison have long since reverted to their heirs or, in some cases, neighbors. They welcome the assistance to get back on their feet financially.

Government officials, however, insist that the Acteal prisoners must relocate to new communities because they fear violent clashes will flare between them and their old rivals.

The seven freed men were unanimous in their opinion that such confrontations would not happen.

“In the first place, we do not agree with what the government is saying,” Gomez Perez said. “We hold no grudges against those who accused us. What happened, happened. We are not thinking vengeance.”

Perez Mendez agreed with Gomez Perez that the men feel no ill will against those who accused them and no resentment for what they suffered in jail.

“God does not want that we hold grudges or take vengeance against anyone,” he said. “There is not really much danger out there in our communities either. When people saw the news on television on Aug. 12 that we were getting out, they were happy. Well, now we hear that they found out we are not coming home, that we are here in Tuxtla, and some are saying, ‘Why don’t they come home? Tell them to come.’”

The Acteal prisoners have reason to hold grudges. Their attorneys say many of them were arrested in random police sweeps in the days following the massacre simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Public indignation over the brutal slayings, fueled by numerous inflammatory press releases from Las Abejas, a civic group whose members were primary targets in the massacre, as well as by the left-leaning human rights organization Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, swelled to fever pitch in December 1997.

Authorities responded by arresting dozens of “suspects,” without evidence or warrants, to quell the outcry.

Some Acteal defendants found themselves accused of the crime by allies of the rebel Zapatista guerrilla army. A land dispute between Zapatista sympathizers and opponents of the rebels intensified during the waning months of 1997, claiming the lives of 18 indigenous men, the majority of them Protestant Christians. Attorneys say indifferent law enforcement officers failed even to investigate the murders, let alone arrest the perpetrators.

Frustrated with the authorities’ foot-dragging and desperate to defend themselves against further aggression, nine indigenous young men armed themselves and confronted their enemies on Dec. 22, 1997. The ensuing firefight and subsequent massacre at the Catholic hermitage in Acteal ended with 45 dead, many of them women and children who were participating in an Abejas-sponsored program that day.

Five of the nine armed men have confessed to participating in the Acteal shootings and insist they acted alone. Those five are serving prison terms in El Amate. Two others were arrested and released because they were minors at the time of the crime. Two more remain at large and, ironically, have reportedly come under the protection of the Zapatistas.

Las Abejas and its allies continue to assert that that the Acteal killings were carried out by “paramilitary” units equipped and assisted by the Mexican army. With the passage of time, many of those who hold this thesis have admitted that most of the Acteal prisoners did not, in fact, participate in the shooting. Nevertheless, they insist that until the “intellectual authors” of the atrocity come forward and confess, not one prisoner – even though innocent of the crime – should be released.

That strange logic has helped to keep more than 50 innocent men in prison for nearly 12 years.

“It is certain that we suffered an injustice for nearly 12 years,” Perez Mendez said. “A lot of people tell us that we are guilty. But as far as we are concerned, God knows all. We did not commit that crime.

He implored Christians to pray for the innocent men who have yet to be released.

Pray as well for we who are not at home in our communities,” he said. “I ask that you not forget us.”Report from Compass Direct News