Accepting Islamic law in exchange for peace leaves many uncertain, fearful.

ISTANBUL, March 27 (Compass Direct News) – Just over a month since Pakistan’s fertile Swat Valley turned into a Taliban stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules, the fate of the remaining Christians in the area is uncertain.

Last month, in an effort to end a bloody two-year battle, the Islamabad administration struck a deal with Taliban forces surrendering all governance of Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Sources told Compass that after the violence that has killed and displaced hundreds, an estimated 500 Christians remain in the area. Traditionally these have been low-skilled workers, but younger, more educated Christians work as nurses, teachers and in various other professions.

The sole Church of Pakistan congregation in Swat, consisting of 40 families, has been renting space for nearly 100 years. The government has never given them permission to buy land in order to build a church building.

An associate pastor of the church in central Swat told Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace that with the bombing of girls schools at the end of last year, all Christian families migrated to nearby districts. After the peace deal and with guarded hope for normalcy and continued education for their children, most of the families have returned to their homes but are reluctant to attend church.

The associate pastor, who requested anonymity, today told sources that “people don’t come to the church as they used to come before.” He said that although the Taliban has made promises of peace, the Christian community has yet to believe the Muslim extremists will hold to them.

“The people don’t rely on Taliban assurances,” said Benjamin.

Last week the associate pastor met with the third in command of the main Taliban militant umbrella group in Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Kari Abdullah, and requested land in order to build a church. Abdullah reportedly agreed, saying that Islam is a religion of peace and equality, and that his group intended to provide equal opportunities to the religious communities of Swat.

The Catholic Church in Swat is located in a school compound that was bombed late last year. Run by nuns and operated under the Catholic Church Peshawar Diocese, the church has been closed for the last two years since insurgents have been fighting government led forces, source said.

Parliamentarian Shahbaz Bhatti said Christians and the few Hindus in Swat valley have lived under terror and harassment by the Taliban since insurgents began efforts to seize control of the region. He met with a delegation of Christians from Swat last month who said they were concerned about their future, but Bhatti said only time will tell how the changes will affect Christians.

“The Christian delegation told me that they favor the peace pact if indeed it can bring peace, stability and security to the people living there,” he said. “But they also shared their concern that if there is enforcement of sharia, what will be their future? But we will see how it will be implemented.”

Although there have been no direct threats against Christians since the establishment of the peace accord, some advocates fear that it may only be a matter of time.

“These days, there are no reports of persecution in Swat,” Lahore-based reporter Felix Qaiser of Asia News told Compass by phone, noting the previous two years of threatening letters, kidnappings and aggression against Christians by Islamic extremists. “But even though since the implementation of sharia there have been no such reports, we are expecting them. We’re expecting this because other faiths won’t be tolerated.”

Qaiser also expressed concern about the treatment of women.

“They won’t be allowed to move freely and without veils,” he said. “And we’re very much concerned about their education there.”

In the past year, more than 200 girls schools in Swat were reported to have been burned down or bombed by Islamic extremists.

Remaining girls schools were closed down in January but have been re-opened since the peace agreement in mid-February. Girls under the age of 13 are allowed to attend.

Since the deal was struck, seven new sharia judges have been installed, and earlier this month lawyers were trained in the nuances of Islamic law. Those not trained are not permitted to exercise their profession. As of this week, Non-Governmental Organizations are no longer permitted in the area and vaccinations have been banned.

“These are the first fruits of Islamic law, and we’re expecting worse things – Islamic punishment such as cutting off hands, because no one can dictate to them,” Qaiser said. Everything is according to their will and their own interpretation of Islamic law.”


Launch Point for Taliban

Analysts and sources on the ground have expressed skepticism in the peace deal brokered by pro-Taliban religious leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad, who is also the leader of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. The insurgent, who has long fought for implementation of sharia in the region, has also fought alongside the Taliban against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

He was imprisoned and released under a peace deal in April 2008 in an effort to restore normalcy in the Swat Valley. Taliban militants in the Swat area are under the leadership of his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah.

The agreement to implement sharia triggered alarm around the world that militants will be emboldened in the northwest of Pakistan, a hotbed for Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists fighting Western forces in Afghanistan and bent on overthrowing its government.

Joe Grieboski of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy said the peace deal makes Talibanization guaranteed by law, rendering it impossible to return to a liberal democracy or any guarantee of fundamental rights.

“The government in essence ceded the region to the Taliban,” said Grieboski. “Clerical rule over the region will fulfill the desires of the extremists, and we’ll see the region become a copy of what Afghanistan looked like under Taliban rule.”

This can only mean, he added, that the Taliban will have more power to promulgate their ideology and power even as the Pakistani administration continues to weaken.

“Unfortunately, this also creates a safe launching off point for Taliban forces to advance politically, militarily and ideologically into other areas of the country,” said Grieboski. “The peace deal further demonstrates the impotence of [Asif Ali] Zardari as president.”

Grieboski said the peace deal further demonstrates that Pakistani elites – and President Zardari in particular – are less concerned about fundamental rights, freedom and democracy than about establishing a false sense of security in the country.

“This peace deal will not last, as the extremists will demand more and more, and Zardari and the government have placed themselves in a weakened position and will once again have to give in,” said Grieboski.

Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of advocacy group Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, said he fears that militants in Swat will now be able to freely create training centers and continue to attack the rest of Pakistan.

“They will become stronger, and this will be the greatest threat for Christians living in Pakistan,” said Johnson.

Thus far the government has not completely bowed to Taliban demands for establishment of full sharia courts, and it is feared that the insurgents may re-launch violent attacks on civilians until they have full judicial control.

“The question of the mode of implementation has not yet been decided, because the Taliban want their own qazis [sharia judges] and that the government appointed ones should quit,” said lawyer Khalid Mahmood, who practices in the NWFP.

Mahmood called the judiciary system in Swat “collapsed” and echoed the fear that violence would spread in the rest of the country.

“They will certainly attack on the neighboring districts,” he said.

Earlier today, close to the Swat Valley in Khyber, a suicide bomber demolished a mosque in Jamrud, killing at least 48 people and injuring more than 150 others during Friday prayers. Pakistani security officials reportedly said they suspected the attack was retaliation for attempts to get NATO supplies into Afghanistan to use against Taliban fighters and other Islamist militants.

Report from Compass Direct News


If it wasn’t Saudi Arabia this would be extremely difficult to believe – a woman that was gang-raped has been jailed for adultery and also will suffer 100 lashes after she has the baby that came about as a result of the rape. Shocked? Stunned? This is the tragedy for women under strict Islamic law in Saudi Arabia.

The young woman accepted a lift from a man who took her to a house where she was raped by him and four other men. She fell pregnant as a result of the rape and went to the King Fahd Hospital for Armed Forces out of desperation seeking an abortion. Instead she was arrested and ‘confessed’ to ‘forced intercourse’ with those that attacked her.

The judge made a ruling that she had committed adultery (she was not married) and jailed her for a year, as well as the flogging after she gives birth to the child.

My view is that this is appalling and a disgrace to humanity. Women are treated as lower class citizens in Saudi Arabia and men living in that country should be ashamed of their country for allowing this disgraceful treatment of women.

Shame Saudi Arabia, shame!!!


Judge ignores video evidence of officers’ unwarranted, violent attack on café.

ISTANBUL January 29 (Compass Direct News) – Following a brutal raid on six Christian brothers and their café because they had opened for business during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, a judge on Jan. 22 sentenced them to three years in prison with hard labor for resisting arrest and assaulting authorities.

Last September, 13 police officers raided the café in Port Sa’id, a city in Egypt’s Nile delta, overturning tables, breaking chairs and smashing glasses and hookah pipes, according to the Coptic Christians’ lawyer. They beat the brothers with sticks, leaving two with broken arms and a third needing 11 stitches for a head wound.

“The police attacked these people and assaulted them unjustifiably,” said Ramses el-Nagar, the Christians’ lawyer. “Police did not want to see people eating during Ramadan. This is unfair, because whatever people’s beliefs are, the law is something else and they should not be mixed.”

There is no law in Egypt under which the brothers could be prosecuted for opening their café during Ramadan. When they tried to defend their café, the brothers, all in their 30s, were arrested on Sept. 8 and charged with resisting arrest and assaulting authorities. They were held for 30 days before being released on bail, set at 12,000 Egyptian pounds (US$2,173).

At the trial last week, defense counsel showed a video of the incident shot by an onlooker as evidence of police brutality. The footage did not sway Judge Mohammed Hassan El-Mahmody, prompting some Coptic activists to claim religious zeal and prejudice as the true motives behind the convictions.

“The police very often pressure the Copts to accept unfair situations,” said El-Nagar. “Unfortunately, with the power of the police and Egypt being a police state, we don’t have the inclination to take the police to court.”

The names of the imprisoned Christian brothers are Ashraf Morris Ghatas; Magdy Morris Ghatas; Osama Morris Ghatas; Nabil Morris Ghatas; Walid Morris Ghatas; and Hany Morris Ghatas.

Ibrahim Habib, chairman of advocacy group United Copts of Great Britain, told Compass that Egypt needs to take certain steps for progress toward justice.

“What we would like to see is the government implementing the law, showing fairness, maintaining total separation between the state and religion, and removing the second article from the Egyptian constitution,” which makes Islamic law the source of statutory law, he said. “We would like to see Egypt free and treating all citizens equally.”

El-Nagar has 30 days to appeal the decision before the Court of Cassation, a high appeals tribunal. He said he plans to do so.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Religious reconciliation meetings produce first such acquittal as imams issue fatwa.

ISTANBUL, January 23 (Compass Direct News) – Five Christians charged with “blasphemy” against Islam during April 2007 religious holidays were released on Monday (Jan. 19) after reconciliation meetings between Christian and Islamic leaders – the first verdict to have resulted from such efforts in Pakistan.

A Punjab court released Salamat Masih, 42, his 16-year-old son Rashid, and their relatives Ishfaq, Saba and Dao Masih after a judge acquitted them. Their acquittal and release came through out-of-court meetings between Muslim leaders and a Christian Non-Governmental Organization.

“This is a wonderful sign that has made history,” said Shahzad Kamran, a case worker for Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan (SLMP), which negotiated with the Muslim leaders. “This case can set a precedent for future blasphemy cases against Christians.”

The reconciliation meetings between SLMP and local and national imams began last November. Rather than attempt to settle the matter in court, the legal advocacy group sought out Muslim leaders directly to persuade them that the accused were innocent; the Islamic clerics then compelled area Muslims to drop their charges.

The meetings took place between four Islamic clergymen, National Assembly Representative Mushtaq Ahmed and Sohail Johnson of the SLMP. Ahmed was unavailable for comment in spite of repeated attempts to contact him.

Johnson of SLMP took precautionary measures to keep from being exposed to violence, meeting with the imams in neutral locations away from mosques and Muslim parts of the city. The SLMP team managed to convince the Islamic clerics to release the Christians by persuading them that the alleged blasphemy grew from a misunderstanding.

“There is permission granted in Islamic law that if someone unintentionally commits an offense, it can be reconciled,” Johnson said. “[The cleric] said he would do it because he did not want to bring harm and injustice to the community.”

The Islamic clergymen agreed to issue a fatwa (religious edict) declaring the accused men innocent of blasphemy. The Muslim witnesses in the case withdrew their testimony on Jan. 13, and District Judge Sheik Salahudin acquitted the five men in a Toba Tek Singh court.

The legal advocates involved in the case said they would employ reconciliation in future cases of false blasphemy charges. They said that battling such cases in court can still free innocent people, but it does not help to solve sectarian strife that leads to violence and false charges.

But with reconciliation meetings, “the word of God has affected the hearts of the Muslims and changed their behavior,” Johnson said. “With our good behavior we can change the people.”

The SLMP’s Kamran said the imams declared the defendants innocent because they knew the men did not intentionally insult the Islamic religion. The situation likely escalated because it took place during an Islamic holiday, with the April 2007 Muslim celebration of Eid-e-Millad-ul-Nabi (Muhammad’s birthday) turning into mob violence after the spread of false rumors against Christians. Local Christian Ratan Masih was severely injured. Other Christians fled for fear of their lives, according to SLMP.

Approximately 2,000 Muslims attacked Christian Colony, a Christian neighborhood, stoning houses and torturing Christians, according to an SLMP report. Initially the mob violence began over a quarrel between Rashid Masih’s younger brother Daniel, 12, and a Muslim child named Sunny. In the course of the argument, a sticker fell off Sunny’s shirt that bore the words Yah Rasool Allah, a reference to Muhammad as God’s messenger.

A local resident, Mohammed Farsal, saw the sticker on the ground and accused the Christian children of blasphemy. Violence soon broke out, and police eventually arrested all five men on charges of insulting Islam.

Blasphemy charges against non-Muslims are not uncommon in Pakistan and are typically applied in cases of sectarian violence. Islamic leaders are often under community pressure to blame Christians in these situations.

Human rights lawyers hope this case sets a precedent for future blasphemy cases, with spurious charges of insulting Islam or its prophet becoming more difficult to press.

Other legal cases of blasphemy continue in Pakistan, including the arrest of Munir Masih and his wife Ruqiya Bibi for insulting Islam. They were granted bail yesterday in Kasur.

At the hearing, 20 local Muslims pressured the judge not to grant them bail, according to a report from the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement.

On Wednesday (Jan. 21), Hector Aleem from Islamabad was falsely accused of blasphemy, most likely as a backlash to his role as a human rights activist, the report said.

Christian lawmakers in the Muslim-majority country of 170 million hope to curb these legal abuses by abolishing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.  

Report from Compass Direct News


‘Continuously high’ wave of arrests increases; whereabouts, charges unknown.

LOS ANGELES, January 23 (Compass Direct News) – Three Christians from two different families were arrested from their homes Wednesday morning (Jan. 21) and are being held without charges, sources told Compass.

Authorities took Jamal Ghalishorani, 49, and his wife Nadereh Jamali from their home in Tehran between 7 and 8 a.m., about a half hour after arresting Hamik Khachikian, an Armenian Christian also living in Tehran. Ghalishorani and his wife are Christian converts from Islam, considered “apostasy” in Iran and potentially punishable by death.

Christian sources told Compass that Ghalishorani converted to Christianity 30 years ago, and his wife received Christ about 15 years ago. They have one child, a 13-year-old daughter, while Khachikian has two children, a 16-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter. Authorities have not told the families of the charges against those arrested or their whereabouts.

The three arrested Christians belong to house churches, source said, and they hold jobs and are not supported as clergy. Police also took books and computers from the families’ homes.

The arrests come as part of a tsunami of arrests in the past several months, the sources said.

“We don’t know why the pressure is continuously high, but we see that it is increasing,” said one source. “The government does it to the Baha’i people as well – there are more arrests in the last several months among them than in maybe the whole 30 years before.”

Arrests and pressure on Christians from authorities have ramped up even further in the past few months, the source said, adding that the reasons were unclear.

Another source, however, said the arrests are part of a concerted, nationwide government plan.

“We are quite sure that these arrests are part of a bigger operation from the government,” the source said. “Maybe up to 50 people were arrested. In Tehran alone already some 10 people were arrested – all on the same day, January 21.”

Sources noted that whereas past waves of intense harassment and arrests of Christians eventually have subsided, recent pressure has been “continuously high,” with reports of arrests in almost every month of 2008.

“In the past there have been waves of incredible pressure, but then it seemed to calm down a bit sometimes,” said one source. “Then we had the feeling pressure came and went, but now it is continuously ongoing.”

The families of those arrested fear for their safety. Khachikian’s wife is “very confused, she has no idea where her husband is,” said the source. “Relatives are taking care of the daughter of Jamal and Nadereh’s, but of course she’s very anxious about what will happen to her parents.”

The arrests are particularly disturbing in light of the Iranian parliament’s approval last September of a new penal code calling for a mandatory death sentence for “apostates,” or those who leave Islam. In the past death sentences for apostasy were issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).

Under the new penal code, male “apostates” would be executed, while females would receive life sentences. The new code was to be sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it. The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Hossein Soodmand in 1990. He was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Human rights advocates look to international arena for help.

ISTANBUL, November 24 (Compass Direct News) – Egyptian human rights workers are looking to international bodies for support against Muslim judges who use sharia (Islamic law) to undermine custody rights of Christian mothers.

Despite provisions such as Egyptian law’s Article 20, which dictates that minors should remain with their mother until age 15, judges consistently rule in favor of Muslim fathers in custody disputes with Christian mothers. Islamist judges typically resort to Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which states that “principles of Islamic law are the principal source of legislation.”

Sharia-based decisions that rule contrary to Egyptian statutory law have led the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent human rights organization, to protest before the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR). The ACHPR was formed by the African Union to oversee the implementation of its Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

An investigation, decision and recommendation by the African Commission to the Egyptian government would lend considerable weight to the EIPR’s efforts to enforce Egyptian Personal Status Law, which states explicitly the mother’s right to custody of her children until they reach age 15.

The EIPR’s complaint before the African Commission accuses the Egyptian government of violating the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Egypt ratified in 1984, the human rights organization said in a Nov. 10 statement. The EIPR referred to the case of 13-year-old twins Andrew and Mario Medhat Ramses, whom an appeals court awarded to their father Medhat Ramses Labib on Sept. 24 after a custody battle.

“The government’s treatment of the boys’ mother, Kamilia Lotfy Gaballah, constituted discrimination based on her religion and violated her right to equal protection before the law,” the EIPR stated. “The case also charges that the government violated the two boys’ right to freedom of religion and contravened the state’s legal obligation to protect child rights.”

The boys’ father, Labib, converted to Islam in 1999 after divorcing Gaballah to marry another woman. In 2006 Labib altered the official religious status of the boys and later applied for custody.

“Obviously in this custody decision, it is a flagrant disregard of the Personal Status Law, which ensures custody for the mother until the children are 15 years old,” said Hossam Bahgat of the EIPR. “In this case the judiciary chose to ignore statutory law and apply their own interpretation of sharia.”

The long-running case of the twins exemplifies the problem but is in no way unique. Sisters Ashraqat Gohar, 12, and Maria Gohar, 8, were taken from their Christian mother in January and placed in the custody of their Muslim father, Wafiq Gohar, despite his criminal record and the 12-year-old’s claims that he is an alcoholic.

The court ruling referred to Wafiq Gohar’s fears that “[the girls] would cherish a religion other than Islam, eat foods that are banned in Islam and go to church” as determining factors in their decision.

“It is a big problem we are facing in Egypt,” said Naguib Gobrail, president of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations. “The decision of the court clearly stated that according to Article 2, the main source [of legislation] is sharia, so the judge cannot apply the natural law.”

More recently, 3-year-old Barthenia Rezqallah of Tanta, near Cairo, remains in her father’s custody, despite a court order that she be returned to her mother pending a final verdict. Police have turned a blind eye to the court order out of fears that the child will practice Christianity rather than Islam, said Gobrail.

Gobrail said that international pressure may be the solution.

“Maybe a connection with someone of international character connecting with President [Hosni] Mubarak is the only way,” he said, “because he has the authority to give orders to the National Assembly to issue a law to make things equal between Muslims and Copts, especially for the children.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Snares abound as Christian seeks to protect wife, baby and future faithful.

ISTANBUL, September 12 (Compass Direct News) – Egypt’s most famous convert to Christianity is a prisoner of his own home, hiding for his life.

After Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, 25, became the first Muslim-born Egyptian to file a case a year ago for his identification card to reflect his newfound faith, his face has been shown on TV channels and newspapers. Anywhere he goes, he might be recognized by fanatical Islamists bent on killing him – besides his own family members, who also want him dead.

In the last eight months, since an Egyptian court closed his case in a Jan. 29 court ruling that declared it was against Islamic law for a Muslim to leave Islam, Hegazy has had to move five times with his wife and baby daughter.

“The verdict for my case was discriminatory [on the part] of the judge,” Hegazy told Compass in an interview last month. The judge based his decision on Islamic law, which says one can convert “up” in the Muslim hierarchy of religions – from Judaism and Christianity to Islam – but not vice versa.

But months after the final court decision, even after the issue is fizzing out in the media, Hegazy said that his life is in danger – as is that of every convert in Egypt.


Living on the Run

“The most difficult thing for me is that the lives of my wife and daughter are in danger all the time,” Hegazy said.

In one instance a year ago, he and his family barely escaped alive. Last October, he received a phone call from a friend who told him that one of his own lawyers had given authorities his address. His friend told him he might have to move in the next few days and to be careful.

“I had a feeling we should move,” said Hegazy, explaining that he listens for God’s voice on such decisions. “So we moved immediately, and the next night the fundamentalists came to attack us.”

A group of Islamists camped around his former house for days. They also set fire to the apartment of Hegazy’s next-door neighbor, killing her. He said the neighbor, whose name was withheld for the security of her relatives, was the best friend of his wife and had helped them in their ordeal.

“The church denied that she was killed, and it was never reported publicly,” he said.

The convert’s hope is that one day he can get his family out of the country, but without passports that is a remote possibility. Passports are issued in the hometown of the citizen.

Both Hegazy and his wife are well-known and unwelcome in their hometowns.

His wife would need to go to El-Minya to apply for a passport, he said, “and as soon as she goes there she will be killed. Even if it’s not family, others will do it, so I can’t take that risk.”

Hegazy’s father has also filed to gain custody of his baby granddaughter so that she is raised Muslim. He has also given authorities false information, such as asserting that Hegazy hasn’t served his military service, and has publicly said that if his son doesn’t recant his faith he will kill him.

“Many lawyers volunteered to file a case against me,” he said.


Persecuted Converts

Hegazy risked venturing out of his house on a hot afternoon in August to speak to Compass. At a restaurant, he looked over his shoulder nervously to make sure he wasn’t followed.

What the convert-turned-political activist really wanted to talk about was the situation of thousands of converts in his country who suffer discrimination by the state, family and even local churches, he said, because the country’s constitution is based on sharia (Islamic law).

“The most important thing is to show how converts are persecuted and how they are suffering in Egypt,” said Hegazy. “I want to clarify this because converts are persecuted by society and the church and their families.”

Hegazy minces no words when it comes to what he calls the inability of the church to stand up to the forces of government and Islamic society in order to defend the rights of converts.

“The church in Egypt is impotent and cowardly,” he said, noting church leaders who do not stand up for religious rights and claim they do not evangelize and baptize converts. He cited Coptic Bishop Bishoy, who said that his church is against “proselytizing” and spreading the gospel and that the Coptic Church is not doing it. Coptic churches in Egypt – Catholic and evangelical – publicly claim they do not baptize converts, each blaming the other for doing so, while priests and pastors are known to baptize in secret so as not to provoke violent reactions from Islamists and the government.

“The priest that baptized me refused to see me for a whole year,” said Hegazy. “Not one priest is standing up to say, ‘I baptize converts.’”

Hegazy said that reactions like this leave converts feeling marginalized.

“You have to understand that the church is treating converts as second-class citizens. The only heroic thing they could do was baptize me secretly,” said Hegazy, who had to fight to get a baptismal certificate, as do so many other converts. “Can you imagine how a convert feels? Should we accuse converts of being discriminatory or sectarian if they want to establish their own church?”

Converts, Hegazy said, are attacked on all fronts of Egyptian society. “The government is Islamic, the society is Islamic, and the church is weak,” he said. “Converts are stuck between all of these, between the jaws of the government and society.”


A Little Help

Hegazy and other religious rights activists believe that individual cases such as his or that of Maher El-Gohary, filed last month, alone cannot gain legal rights for converts who wish to become officially Christian and accepted in society.

“I don’t believe my case is going to be resolved,” said Hegazy. “I’m not pessimistic, but if we are dealing with a personal case we can’t achieve anything. Instead we have to talk about the broad issue and discuss conversion as a big case, because there are so many believers persecuted.”

As have other activists, Hegazy said that if Egyptian converts living overseas and in Egypt were to file a joint case they would have more leverage. But they need greater support from human rights groups, which are not pushing enough for convert cases, he said.

“I can’t understand how we have so many human rights organizations, and Christian ones, and no one is taking any action,” he said.

Hegazy suggested that human rights organizations should publicly advocate a law that supports freedom of conversion, including committees to monitor developments. If such a law were in place, he said, the Egyptian government would stop using Muslim fundamentalist reactions as an excuse to avoid enforcing justice.

“This way the government can’t say, ‘We don’t [change religion on identification cards] because of fundamentalism, it will upset our society,’ because there will be a law in place,” he said.

Additionally, he said, converts must also fight against lack of action by human rights organizations.

“The problem is we’re struggling with the church, the society, our families,” he said. “So we don’t need an extra struggle with human rights organizations.”



Hegazy and his lawyer are still waiting for a court date for his appeal. They applied for it in February.

“Every week we go to the court to find out when the appeal date is set for,” said Hegazy’s lawyer, Gamal Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

At a recent court visit they were told to come back in October, leading them to believe that perhaps they will get a court date that month.

Hegazy said he is ready to fight his case to the end. Already, he said, his case has made one gain for Egypt’s converts: the recognition that there are such persons as “converts,” and they are in the public debate.

“Nowadays, the word ‘convert’ is being used in the media here – never before!” said Hegazy. “That’s progress.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Likelihood of death sentence grows as Parliament debates bill making it mandatory.

LOS ANGELES, September 10 (Compass Direct News) – Two Iranian Christians have officially been charged with “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, as a draft law making the death penalty mandatory for those convicted of the charge is set to be debated in Iran’s Parliament.

Mahmood Matin Azad, 52, and Arash Basirat (previously reported Bandari), 44, have been in prison since May 15, when they were arrested in Shiraz. When their lawyer went to authorities to inquire about the case in early August, he was informed that the two men had been formally charged with apostasy, sources confirmed to Compass.

At that time authorities gave the lawyer an official document stating that the formal charge of “apostasy” was based on the men’s confessions during interrogation. The “Interrogation Note – Investigator’s Final Order” said that their “culpability order” was based on Article 214 of the penal code and sections of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s treatise on legal affairs, the Tahrir ol Vassileh. Iran’s legal system is based on sharia (Islamic law).

Previous charges of “Propaganda Against the Islamic Republic of Iran” had been dropped, according to the statement.

Sources who spoke to the lawyer explained that authorities generally do not issue written statements, and that this was an indication of the severity and complexity of the case.

With the apostasy bill to be debated in Parliament, some Iranian Christians fear that authorities are seeking to make an example of the two prisoners or give the prospective law a “test run.”


‘Interesting and Sensitive’

In February the Iranian Parliament proposed a draft penal code that demands the death penalty for leaving Islam. Under current Iranian law, apostasy is considered a capital offense, but punishment is left to the discretion of the judge.

Basirat, who suffers from diabetes, and Matin are expected to appear in court within the next few weeks with their lawyer in order to defend their case. They would not officially be found guilty unless evidence presented at the hearing were incriminating.

Meantime, the families of Basirat and Matin have tried unsuccessfully to get the prisoners out on bail before the trial takes place. The last week of August the lawyer instructed Matin’s wife to prepare a bail sum of around $40,000 to $50,000. But when the lawyer tried to get the necessary paperwork and signatures from the judge, the bail amount was denied.

Fearing that the bail amount may be doubled, the defense attorney told a source close to Matin’s family that the case had become “interesting and sensitive” for the judge and authorities, and therefore they would not “let it go so easily.”

Basirat’s family also tried to release him on bail by offering the deed of their home, but authorities have not accepted it.

The defense team has suggested that the defendants seek that international pressure be brought to bear on Iranian authorities to release Basirat and Matin and clear their names of any wrongdoing.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Attorney, relative of Christian parents fear they are likely to lose custody of daughters.

ISTANBUL, August 12 (Compass Direct News) – Amid pressure from radical Muslim clerics, a medical board is expected to determine the age of a Christian Pakistani girl allegedly forced to convert to Islam. The medical report on 13-year-old Saba Masih, who married a Muslim man, is due by her Aug. 20 custody hearing.

The custody battle over her and her 10-year-old sister, Aneela Masih – two girls raised as Christians who were kidnapped and allegedly converted to Islam – may be decided on their testimonies even though they contradict court evidence. Saba Masih, married off to the Muslim man after the kidnapping, has twice claimed in court that she is 17 years old – Pakistani law requires females to be at least 16 to marry without permission of legal guardians.

At a hearing last Wednesday (Aug. 6), the Lahore High Court’s Multan branch ruled that the district medical board of Multan will examine Saba Masih to determine if she is old enough to marry of her own volition. Aneela Masih claims to have embraced Islam, though as a minor she cannot legally do so.

The court has refused to accept the girls’ birth certificates or baptism records as evidence for their ages. Under Pakistani law a minor cannot marry regardless of his or her religion.

The two sisters were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Saba Masih was married to Amjad Ali, a Muslim, the next day, and the kidnappers filed for custody of the girls on June 28 based on their conversion.

In a July 12 ruling, District and Sessions Court Judge Main Naeem Sardar awarded custody of the girls to the kidnappers based on Saba Masih’s testimony that she was 17 and had converted to Islam. He did not accept the girls’ birth certificates as evidence of their ages.

In a July 29 hearing, Judge Saghir Ahmed said he did not believe the girls converted to Islam of their own volition and ordered them to be sent to a government women’s shelter, so that they could think freely until the Aug. 6 hearing.

At that hearing, however, both girls claimed to have embraced Islam, and Saba Masih claimed once again to be 17 and thus able to marry. Judge Saeed Ejaz ordered that she be sent to a medical examination to determine her real age.

Muslim clerics are already threatening the medical board, claiming that since the girls have embraced Islam they should not be returned to the custody of their Christian parents, said Khalid Raheel, the kidnapped girls’ uncle.

“Muslim clerics are threatening the judge. [Saba] said she was 17 because she was threatened,” he said. “[The judge] told the medical officer to get her age checked by the medical board … [but] Muslim clerics are threatening the medical board.”

The medical board will submit its report at the next hearing on Aug. 20.

Rashid Rehman, a lawyer representing the Christian parents, said that if the report says Saba Masih has reached puberty or is between the ages of 16 and 17, then the court will likely award her Muslim husband custody over her – even though her marriage is invalid since she is a minor.

“The law has been amended, and no minor can be contracted into marriage with [guardian or parental] permission or without permission,” he said. “But because of religious pressure, the court can decide otherwise.”

The court cannot grant custody of Aneela Masih to the kidnappers since both sides agree she is 10. Because she reiterated at the August 6 hearing that she had converted to Islam, however, it is not clear if she will be returned to her Christian parents.

According to a strict interpretation of Islamic law, a non-Muslim cannot have custody of a Muslim child.

“I think Aneela will not be given to the parents but sent to a shelter or child protection care bureau,” said Rehman, a member of the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan. “She can’t reside with the parents, who are Christians.”

After the hearing, the sisters were returned to the government-run Dar-Ul-Aman women’s shelter, where they have stayed since July 29. They have been forbidden from seeing their parents or the Muslim kidnappers.


Threats Continue

The kidnappers, however, continue to intimidate the girls, said Raheel, their uncle.

“Even in the women’s shelter run by the government, they keep on calling them on the phone,” he said. “They keep on threatening them there also. That’s why they can’t change their minds.”

He said the kidnappers are threatening the girls’ parents to stop trying to regain custody of their daughters.

“They told them not to go to court, or they would kill them,” Raheel said.

Attorney Rehman said the courthouse at the Aug. 20 hearing could be a charged environment, since the local press has published stories advocating the kidnappers’ claims.

Raheel noted that the local Urdu papers, Jang and Xpress, quoted the kidnappers as saying the Christian family was threatening them for the return of their daughters even though they had freely chosen to become Muslims.

A priest at the Masih family’s parish known only as Father Asab said many Muslims have expressed their sympathy to the Christian family but are afraid of speaking out against the perpetrators.

“Many Muslims are also with us, those who understand,” he said. “But the majority is afraid to tell the truth. In this case many people in our area, many Muslims, know that those who kidnapped the girls … have a bad name in society. But even Muslim families are frightened to tell the truth.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Family of young man accuses Muslim girlfriend’s relatives of torture, ‘honor killing.’

ISTANBUL, August 7 (Compass Direct News) – Local Pakistani police declared the death of a young Christian man in May to be a suicide requiring no investigation, but a high inspector has reopened the case and taken two Muslim suspects into custody.

Adeel Masih, 19, was found dead on May 4 in Hafizabad, Pakistan. His family and human rights lawyers believe the relatives of a 19-year-old Muslim woman, Kiran Irfan, with whom Masih had a one-year relationship, tortured and killed him. His family has dubbed his death an “honor killing.”

Marriage between Christian men and Muslim women is forbidden according to a strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic Law), and even social contacts such as these can incite violent reactions in Pakistan, a majority-Muslim nation of 170 million.

Local police in Gujranwala, in Punjab province, did not charge Irfan’s family with any crimes and effectively declared them innocent when Masih’s family first came to the station in May, according to the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), a Lahore-based Christian legal advocacy group.

CLAAS then presented the case to the office of inspector general of Punjab province, who reopened it on July 18. Afterwards the young woman’s father and one uncle, Muhammad Riasat, were taken into custody. The district police office is currently leading the investigation.

Members of the Masih family said that when they first tried to register the case with local police three months ago, officers did not cooperate in launching an investigation because the suspects were Muslim and the victim was a Christian, according to CLAAS.

“The police said, ‘We will first inquire whether Adeel has committed suicide,’ because the culprits told the police about the fact that their daughter wanted to embrace Christianity because of Adeel,” said Aneeqa Maria, a case worker for CLAAS. “[In] this way the police were biased and lingered on the matter, because if there is a long delay in the lodging of a first incidence report, the case becomes weak.”

On July 4 the Masih family brought the case to CLAAS, which applied to the district police in Gujranwala. The case moved up the police chain of command and went all the way to the office of the inspector general of Punjab. It was reopened two weeks later.

Masih’s friendship with Irfan began about one year ago. His mother learned of their contact six months later and warned his son to end it due to the dangers. She then told Irfan’s family about their relationship, which both families considered culturally inappropriate.

Irfan’s family began to harass Masih’s parents and threatened to kill him if they ever again heard that their son was contacting their daughter. They said they “would not allow a Christian man to disgrace Islam this way,” according to CLAAS.

Masih disappeared on May 1 while en route by motorbike to visit Irfan. Her father, Mohammed Irfan, and her two uncles, Muhammad Amjad and Muhammad Riasat, reportedly followed him. They then abducted him and threw his motorbike into a nearby canal, a local resident told CLAAS.

Two hours after Masih disappeared, Irfan’s family called his relatives, claiming he had committed suicide near a canal 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Gujranwala. The family searched for two days with the assistance of divers but failed to find him. Police found Masih’s body on May 4 in a canal in Hafizabad, 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of Gujranwala.

According to Masih’s relatives, members of Irfan’s family held Masih in captivity and tortured him for two days.

An autopsy report obtained by Compass states Masih sustained scalp and brain injuries. There were marks on his hands and feet indicating he had been bound.

When Masih’s family originally tried to register the case, accusing the culprits of murder, kidnapping, obstructing justice and conspiracy, police took no action. After an autopsy was performed on Masih’s body, according to CLAAS, his family attempted once more to register the case, but police officials said they would first investigate if Masih had committed suicide.

According to CLAAS, the First Incidence Report of the crime was not registered with the police until May 20, nearly three weeks after Masih disappeared.

Attempts by Compass to reach English-speaking officers at the Gujranwala police station, where Masih’s family originally filed a complaint, were unsuccessful.

Irfan and Riasat are expected to be charged in a local criminal court for murder, kidnapping, obstructing justice and conspiracy. No date has been set for the trial.

Report from Compass Direct News