Muslim Youths in Nigeria Destroy Church Buildings, Pastor’s Home

Attacks in Kano state said to stem from hostility by converts to Islam, land dispute.

LAGOS, Nigeria, May 21 (CDN) — Scores of Muslim youths on Wednesday (May 19) besieged church property in Kano state in northern Nigeria, destroying two church buildings and a pastor’s residence. 

One of the buildings and the pastor’s house were set ablaze on the premises of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) at Kwasam, in the Kiru Local Government Area, while another building under construction was demolished. Youths reportedly numbering more than 100 in the predominantly Muslim area stormed the church grounds.

“The problem started when some Christian youths of ECWA church were converted to Islam,” the Rev. Lado Abdul, chairman of ECWA district in Kano, told Compass. “They swore that the ECWA church would not remain in the area, as they would do everything possible to chase Christians out from Kiru.”

The ECWA pastor whose house was demolished, Gambo Mato, has found shelter in another Christian’s home.

No life was lost during or after the incident as police and State Security Service officers intervened, and traditional rulers, religious leaders and government officials held an urgent meeting to quell potential skirmishes and establish security.

Abdul, however, lamented the denial of rights to Christians in Kano by area Muslims.

“Here in Kano, nobody gives you land to build a church,” he said. “The old churches built before now are being demolished for reasons no one can easily grasp. We have taken our complaint to Sarki Kano [traditional emir of Kano] Alhaji Ado Bayero, and he assured us that something would be done about it. We are looking to the state government to come to our rescue.”

Kano State Police Commissioner Mohammed Gana said that the attack on the church buildings grew out of a land dispute.

“The old church was a mud house, and the ECWA people wanted to rebuild it with blocks,” Gana said. “In the process, there was a disagreement, but we moved in to ensure peace and order.”

Four suspects have been arrested, and an investigation continues, the police chief said.

Elsewhere in Kano state, in Banaka of the Takai Local Government Area, a Baptist church was reportedly demolished on Saturday (May 15).

Kano state, one of 12 states in Nigeria where sharia (Islamic law) is in effect, has been the site of periodic Islamic aggression against the minority Christian community. Last year, when an Islamic extremist sect known as Boko Haram instigated rioting in Bauchi state that killed at least 12 Christians, the firestorm of violence spread to Kano state as well as Borno and Yobe states.

In 2008, hundreds of Muslims took to the streets of Kano city on April 20, attacking Christians and their shops and setting vehicles on fire based on claims that a Christian had blasphemed Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Thousands of Christians were trapped in church buildings until police could disperse the assailants.

An unidentified Christian was said to have written an inscription on a shop wall that disparaged the prophet of Islam. Muslims at a market in the Sabon Garia area of the city reportedly attacked the Christian, whom police rescued and took to the area police station.

Muslims in large numbers soon trooped to the police station, threatening to set it ablaze unless officers released the Christian to be stoned to death in accordance with sharia, sources said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christian Forced to Sell Kidney to Pay Debt to Boss in Pakistan

Employer charges non-Muslims at least 400 percent interest.

LAHORE, Pakistan, May 14 (CDN) — A low-wage Pakistani Christian said his Muslim employer last week forced him to sell his kidney in an effort to pay off a loan his boss made at exorbitant interest rates charged only to non-Muslims.

John Gill, a molding machine operator at Shah Plastic Manufacturers in the Youhanabad area of Lahore, said he took a loan of 150,000 rupees (US$1,766) – at 400 percent interest – from employer Ghulam Mustafa in 2007 in order to send his 17-year-old daughter to college. 

“I kept paying the installments every month from my salary, but after three years I got tired of paying the huge interest on the loan,” Gill told Compass.

The employer denied that he had received payment installments from his Christian worker, although Gill said he had receipts for monthly payments.

Mustafa confirmed that he took over Gill’s home last week after giving the Christian two weeks to pay off the outstanding interest on the loan. Then, on May 6, Mustafa came to Gill’s home with “about five armed men” and transported him to Ganga Ram hospital, where they forced him to sell his kidney against his will, the Christian said.

“They sold my kidney and said that they will come next month for the rest of the money,” Gill said.

The value of the kidney was estimated at around 200,000 rupees (US$2,380), leaving Gill with outstanding debt of about 250,000 rupees (US$2,976), he said. Recovering at home, Gill said he did not know he would repay the rest of the debt.

Mustafa told Compass that Gill owed him 400 percent interest on the loan.

“I only offer 50 percent interest to Muslim employees,” he said, adding that he refused to take less than 400 percent interest from any non-Muslim.

‘Kidney Bazaar’

There was no immediate confirmation from Ganga Ram hospital. Rights groups, however, have complained that hundreds of rich foreigners come to Pakistan every year to buy kidneys from live, impoverished donors.

Kidney failure is increasingly common in rich countries, often because of obesity or hypertension, but a growing shortage of transplant organs has fueled a black market that exploits needy donors such as Gill and risks undermining voluntary donation schemes, according to Pakistan’s Kidney Foundation.

Pakistani legislation aimed at curbing trafficking in human kidneys has not ended a business that has turned the country into the world’s “kidney bazaar,” critics say.

Gill said he is trying to contact local Christian advocacy groups to help him recover and overcome his financial and spiritual difficulties. Christians are a minority in heavily Islamic Pakistan, where rights groups have lamented discrimination against Christian workers.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Two Church of Christ in Nigeria Journalists Killed in Jos

Other Christians murdered in area that continues to be wracked by violence.

LAGOS, Nigeria, April 27 (CDN) — The killing of Christians in Jos, Plateau state in Nigeria continued over the weekend with two journalists and five other persons falling victim to Muslim youth gangs.

Nathan S. Dabak, an assistant editor at a newspaper of the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) called The Light Bearer, and Sunday Gyang Bwede, a reporter at the publication, were stabbed to death on Saturday (April 24) at Gado-Bako in Jos North Local Government Area along with an unidentified motorcyclist.

“The staff of the church were murdered in cold blood by some Hausa Muslim youths,” the Rev. Pandang Yamsat, president of COCIN, told Compass today. “This is clear because they have been using the hand phones of the deceased journalists and boasting that they are the ones that killed them.”

The young Muslim men have been boldly answering calls to the cell phones of the deceased journalists, he said; when a friend of Dabak called his cell phone number, an unknown voice responded, “We have killed all of them – you can do your worst!”

Dabak, 36, and the 39-year-old Bwede had left their office on Saturday morning and were on their way to interview local politician Bulus Kaze when they fell into the hands of young Muslim men, Yamsat said.

The church started a search for the two Christians that day but did not discover their bodies until about noon on Sunday at the mortuary of Jos University Teaching Hospital, he said. He added that the church was eagerly waiting for results of a police investigation.

“The security team of the church has been communicating with the police, but they are yet to make any headway on this unfortunate incident,” he said.

Burial of the slain journalists is scheduled for Friday (April 30).

In his statement on Monday (April 26), Yamsat lamented that “while efforts have been tailored towards the return of peace to the state by the military Special Task Force, it is regrettable that the state is confronted with a spate of killings.”

“The church is still mourning the death of its pastor and his wife killed in Boto, Bauchi state,” Yamsat said, in reference to the April 13 kidnapping and murder of the Rev. Ishaku Kadah, 48, and his 45-year-old wife Selina. “It is sad that it should again be left to face another brutal murder of two of their staff.”

The state branch of the Nigerian Union of Journalists also condemned the circumstances that led to the death of the two journalists, expressing deep concern over what it described as “a series of attacks on its members in recent times in the course of carrying out their legitimate duties.”

Four other Christians also were killed on Saturday (April 24) in the Dutse Uku district of Jos’ Nasarawa Gwom area in a revenge attack following the discovery of the corpse of a teenage Muslim who had been missing. Their names were not released at press time.

The four Christians reportedly died, three of them stabbed to death, when hundreds of Muslim youths rampaged throughout the area in protest.

Earlier, police reportedly exhumed eight bodies from shallow graves in a predominantly Christian village near Jos. The discovery of the bodies brought to 15 the number of corpses found in three days in an area fraught with Muslim aggression that has left hundreds of Christians dead.

Jos has become a flash-point for ethnic and religious tensions in Plateau state, which is located between Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north and Christian south. Previously hundreds of Christian villagers were struck with machetes and burned to death on March 7 in Dogo Nahawa, Zot and Rastat, three villages in Jos South and Barkin Ladi Local Government Areas.

On March 17, Muslim Fulani herdsmen assaulted two Christian villages in Plateau state, killing 13 persons, including a pregnant woman and children. In attacks presumably over disputed property but with a level of violence characteristic of jihadist method and motive, men in military camouflage and others in customary clothing also burned 20 houses in Byei and Baten villages, in the Riyom Local Government Area of the state, about 45 kilometers (29 miles) from Jos.

On Jan. 17, two pastors and 46 other Christians were killed in an outbreak of violence in Jos triggered when Muslim youths attacked a Catholic church. Police estimated over 300 lives were lost in subsequent clashes, in which 10 church buildings were burned.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians in Nigeria Decry Police Inaction in Church Burnings

Zamfara state assailants emboldened by lack of prosecution in Jos mayhem, CAN leader says.

LAGOS, Nigeria, February 26 (CDN) — The head of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Zamfara state told Compass that he was disappointed in the lack of response by state police to recent church burnings by Muslim youths.

“It is unfortunate that there has been no response from the police, and even the state governor has refused to meet with us,” said the acting state chairman of CAN, the Rev. Edwin Okpara.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God building in Tudun Wada was partly burnt on Jan. 25, and Christian Faith Bible church and the Living Faith Foundation Chapel, both in Gusau, were partly burnt in attacks on Jan. 20 and 24 respectively. Zamfara state, one of the predominantly Muslim states in northern Nigeria, was the first in the country to implement Islamic law (sharia).

In the petition dated Jan. 26, CAN stated that the church burnings came in the aftermath of “a grand plot to unleash mayhem on churches and Christians in the state due to the religious clash in Jos, Plateau state.”

The association alleged that those who attacked the Zamfara churches were emboldened because officials made no serious move to arrest those who carried out the Jos attacks. Two pastors and 46 other Christians were killed in the outbreak of violence in Jos on Jan. 17, triggered when Muslim youths attacked a Catholic church; 10 church buildings were burned, and police estimated more than 300 lives were lost in the clash.

“We are seriously disturbed by the restlessness and panic these attacks have created among the Christian community and ask that every necessary and urgent step be taken by your command to secure the lives of both Christians and Muslims in the state as citizens of Nigeria,” the CAN petition states. “Despite these attacks and provocation, the church and Christians as peaceful people have remained calm and have no plans to retaliate, but [we are] appealing to you to act and protect our interest.”

The State Police Command was not available for comment on the CAN request.

Okpara lamented that Christians in the state have been suffering in silence with little means of drawing attention to their plight.

“The level of persecution in Zamfara is alarming, more than in any other state in the country,” Okpara said. “Not even in Sokoto or Kano are Christians subjected to the kind of discrimination we are subjected to.”

He said it was impossible to get land to build churches in Zamfara state; Christians are forced to sign an understanding binding them to refrain from using land in the state for church buildings.

“We are more or less operating underground churches in the state,” he said. “The present state government has turned out to be more anti-Christian than the former government in the state, which introduced the sharia law.”

Leaders of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) on Tuesday (Feb. 23) decried cases of persecution and discrimination against Christians and called on the federal government to put an end to it. Virtually all churches in predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria have been refused certificates of occupancy for their buildings, they said.

“There seems to be an unwritten law that churches are not welcomed in the northern part of the country,” the PFN leaders noted in a statement.

Report from Compass Direct News 

EU Visit to Orissa, India Triggers Barrage of Accusations

Hindu nationalists protest delegation as Christians cite injustices.

NEW DELHI, February 8 (CDN) — A delegation from the European Union concluded a “fruitful” trip to India’s violence-torn Orissa state on Friday (Feb. 5) amid a swirl of protests by Hindu nationalist groups and cries of injustice by Christians.

The delegation was able to hold “open and frank” discussions with Kandhamal officials on the visit, said Gabriele Annis of the Embassy of Italy.

“We had a very good meeting with the Kandhamal district administration,” Annis told reporters. “It is fruitful. We had open and frank discussion. It helped us in understanding the situation and understanding happenings over the past 15 months.”

The delegation was led by Christophe Manet, head of Political Affairs of the European Commission delegation to India and consisted of members from Spain, Hungary, Poland, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Finland and Sweden. A delegation from five European countries had visited Orissa earlier in November 2009, but the government of Orissa denied them permission to visit Kandhamal district, where Christians say they continue to be threatened and destitute.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath said on Saturday (Feb. 6) that despite the claims of the state and district administrations, life for the Christian victims of violence in August-September 2008 remains far from normal: thousands still live in makeshift shanties along roadsides and in forests, he said, and local officials and police harass them daily.

“The block officers have been playing with the facts, indulging in corrupt practices and cosmetic exercises whenever political and other dignitaries come to visit or inspect,” the archbishop said in a statement. “Innocent people are coerced into giving a false picture. The chief minister must investigate the role and functioning of the entire district administration . . . It is strange that officers in whose presence the violence took place and thousands of houses were burnt are still in office and are declaring that there is peace in the district.”

Following attacks in the area after Hindu extremists stirred up mobs by falsely accusing Christians of killing Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008, more than 10,000 families were displaced from their homes by the violence. Since then, Cheenath said, an estimated 1,200 families have left the area. Between 200 and 300 families reside in private displacement camps in the district, and more than 4,400 families still live in tents, makeshift shelters or the remnants of their damaged houses, he said.

The number of attack victims who have received financial assistance from the government, churches or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) is unknown, but is estimated at 1,100 families, Cheenath added.

He criticized Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Chief Minister of Orissa Naveen Patnaik saying, “Both of them had promised to provide adequate compensation for the damages caused during the 2008 communal violence. But the victims have not been adequately compensated.”

Cheenath said the state government had decided not to compensate any riot-affected religious institutions even though India’s Supreme Court had directed the government to compensate them for all damages.

“This is a national calamity and demands a special package for the affected people, which should include land, income generation, education and healthcare,” the archbishop said.

Extremist Makeover

Prior to the visit, Christian leaders expressed their shock at Kandhamal district authorities attempting a cosmetic makeover by evacuating nearly 100 Christians from G. Udayagiri.

In letters to the EU delegation, the state government and national human rights and minorities commissions, Dr. John Dayal of the All India Christian Council narrated the plight of the 91 members of 21 families from 11 villages who were living under plastic sheets along a road in the marketplace area of G. Udayagiri.

Dayal said the group included 11 married women, three widows, an elderly man with a fractured hip and thigh, and two infants born in the camp. They had faced almost daily threats, he said, as they had not been allowed to return to their villages unless they renounced their faith and became Hindus.

Soon after the decision to allow the EU delegation, the water supply to the makeshift site was cut off and police and civil officers drove away the residents, who had only plastic sheets to protect them from the cold, he said. The refugees said officers later gave them permission to come back at night but to keep the area clear.

“The families are in G. Udayagiri, they have moved in front of the road, and they are in a very bad state,” the Rev. Samant Nayak of G. Udayagiri told Compass. “They are literally on the road.”

He said that approximately 55 families were living in G. Udayagiri, where they had been given land, and a Christian NGO was helping to construct houses for them.

The Press Trust of India reported that Orissa officials were nervous about last week’s delegation visiting Kandhamal but finally gave permission under pressure from the central government. State officials finally allowed the visit with the pre-condition that the delegation would be allowed only to interact with people and not engage in fact-finding, according to a senior official in Orissa’s home department.

The Kandhamal district collector, Krishna Kumar, told Compass that all went well and “no untoward incidents took place,” but sources reported at least one minor disturbance in Bodimunda village. On Wednesday (Feb. 3), one house was reportedly damaged there in a scuffle that also resulted in two arrests by the local police.

During their Kandhamal visit, the EU delegation was reportedly forced to cancel a meeting with judges of Fast Track courts established in Phulbani, in Kandhamal district, to prosecute hundreds of those accused in the 2008 violence, due to protests from the local lawyers’ association.

Kumar, however, pointed out that the lawyers’ protest was secondary to the lack of clearance from the High court for the meeting with the judges. “The same was not informed to us prior to the visit,” he added.

Justice Denied

The anti-Christian violence in August-September 2008 killed over 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions. Archbishop Cheenath said justice is critical to long term peace.

“The two Fast Track courts, and the court premises, have seen a travesty of justice,” he said in the Feb. 6 statement. “Witnesses are being coerced, threatened, cajoled and sought to be bribed by murderers and arsonists facing trial. The court premises are full of top activists of fundamentalist organizations. The witnesses are also threatened in their homes with elimination, and even their distant relatives are being coerced specially in the murder and arson cases against Member of Legislative Assembly [MLA] Manoj Pradhan.”

Though some witnesses have testified on Pradhan’s alleged involvement in crimes in depositions, he has been acquitted in case after case, the archbishop added.

“We are demanding a special investigation team to investigate every case of murder and arson,” he said. “Similarly, there is also need for transferring the cases against politically powerful persons such as Pradhan to outside Kandhamal, preferably to Cuttack or Bhubaneswar.”

Cheenath said victims have filed 3,232 complaints at Kandhamal police stations, but officers registered only 832 cases. As many as 341 cases were in the G. Udayagiri area alone, 98 in Tikabali and 90 in Raikia, he said.

“Even out of this small number [in G. Udayagiri], only 123 cases were transferred to the two Fast Track courts,” he said. “So far, 71 cases have been tried in the two courts, and 63 cases have been disposed of. Of these, conviction occurred only in 25 cases, and even that is partial as most of the accused have not been arrested or brought to trial.”

Only 89 persons have been convicted so far in Orissa state, while 251 have been acquitted, supposedly for lack of witnesses against them, he said.

“Among them is Manoj Pradhan,” Cheenath said. “It is strange that in the case of 10 deaths by murder, nine cases have been closed without anybody being convicted, while there has been partial conviction in the case of one death. Who will bring justice in the case of the nine murder cases?”

The archbishop demanded that independent lawyers be allowed to assist overworked special public prosecutors.

Hindu Nationalist Protests

Protesting the delegation visit was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other Hindu nationalist organizations. VHP State General Secretary Gouri Prasad Brahma had lamented on Jan. 31 that the visit would trigger tension and demanded their immediate withdrawal.

“There is no business of the outsiders in the internal matter of the state,” he said.

The delegation also faced the ire of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal on the day of its arrival in Bhubaneswar, capital of Orissa, on Tuesday (Feb. 2). Hundreds of its cadres met the delegation at the airport shouting loudly, “EU team, go back.”

Five Bajrang Dal members were detained for creating trouble, Deputy Commissioner of Police H.K. Lal told media on Wednesday (Feb. 3).

After the delegation had left, the Orissa Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) heavily criticized the central and the state governments, with BJP state President, Jual Oram telling a press conference that the state had allowed the visit to “divide people on communal lines.” He said that the delegation had not met any Hindu leader during their visit to Kandhamal, which “exposed their communal agenda.”

Oram accused the delegation of violating protocol in trying to meet the judges of fast-track courts in Kandhamal, saying this “amounted to interference into internal affairs of a sovereign independent member state under the U.N.”

At the same press conference, BJP MLA Karendra Majhi said that allowing the visit was an attempt by the chief minister to win back the confidence of minority Christians. He alleged that the delegation had held secret meetings in a Catholic church at Phulbani with church leaders and select NGOs to facilitate conversions to Christianity.

“I have every reason to believe that the promised assistance of 15 million euros to Kandhamal by the EU delegation will be utilized for conversion activities,” Majhi said.

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


Verdict suggests Algerian government could be softening crackdown on Christians.

ISTANBUL, October 29 (Compass Direct News) – A court in northwestern Algeria today acquitted three Christians charged with blaspheming Islam and threatening a member of their congregation who re-converted to Islam.

The acquittal was announced in a court at Ain El-Turck, 15 kilometers (nine miles) west of the coastal city of Oran. The defendants believe the judge’s decision to acquit was due to the spurious evidence used against them.

The acquittal also comes as part of a larger trend of the Algerian government bowing to negative international media attention and government condemnations of such cases, they said.

Defendant Youssef Ourahmane said that as a result, a recent government crackdown against evangelical Christians has eased off in recent months.

“We had noticed the last four or five months the government is trying to back down a little bit,” Ourahmane said. “I think the pressure on them has been strong, such as condemnations from the U.S. and foreign ministries from France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Spain. This pressure from outside has embarrassed the Algerian government very much.”

Algerian courts have handed several suspended sentences to local evangelicals in the last year under a recent presidential decree that prohibits proselytizing Muslims. No Christian, however, has served prison time on religious charges.

Ourahmane, Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, and a third man were charged in February with “blaspheming the name of the Prophet [Muhammad] and Islam” and threatening the life of a man who claimed to have converted to Christianity but who “returned” to Islam when his fundamentalist ties were exposed.

The first hearing of the three men took place on Oct. 21 in Ain El-Turck. A lawyer appointed by the Ministry of Religion also joined the hearing and surprised the defendants by supporting their plight.

The lawyer affirmed the rights of religious minorities such as Christians in Algeria. The Christians present said she would like the case to be closed.

A prosecutor in the case had sought three years of prison for the three men and a fine of 50,000 dinars (653 euros) for each.

Taking the stand last week, the three men were asked whether they had blasphemed Muhammad and threatened Shamouma Al-Aid, the convert and plaintiff. Al-Aid had professed Christianity from July 2004 through July 2006, when he attended a church near Oran. It was there that he met the Christians, against whom he later filed the blasphemy complaint.

Essaghir, an evangelist and church elder for a small community of Muslim converts to Christianity in Tiaret, has been one of the most targeted Christians in Algeria.

In the last year he has received three sentences, one for blasphemy and two for evangelism. Police stopped Essaghir and another man in June 2007 while transporting Christian literature. As a result they were convicted in absentia in November 2007 and given a two-year sentence and 5,000-euro fines. The Protestants requested a retrial, and the charges were dropped at a hearing in June.

Asked if he could explain why he and other Christians were under fire by Islamists, he told Compass that Muslims felt menaced by the existence of Christianity and its rise in Algeria.

“We are attacked because Muslims feel threatened by us,” said Essaghir. “There are many people who are coming to Christ.”

When the three accused Christians met Al-Aid, he claimed that his family was persecuting him, so they took him in to their church community. But in 2006 the Christians learned that Al-Aid in fact had links with Islamic fundamentalists.

After excommunicating Al-Aid, in October 2007 the three Christians were summoned by police when Al-Aid registered his complaint that they had insulted Muhammad and Islam and threatened his life.

“But the accusations against us are unfounded,” Essaghir told Compass last week by phone. “There is no proof, but we are being condemned because there is no justice.”

Ourahmane said that Al-Aid had shown the police text messages to support his claims, but that police said the number had not been registered with telecommunications services.

With their fresh acquittal, the three Christians could open a case against Al-Aid for bringing a case against them based on spurious evidence, according to Algerian law.

Instead, they want to offer their forgiveness, Ourahmane said.

“We have decided to forgive him and will communicate we are all ready to help him if he needs any help,” he said. “We are in touch with him through one of our team members, and if he is thirsty or hungry we are more than happy to help.”


Pressure on Algeria’s Church

The three acquitted men are just a few of the Algerian Christians who have come under legal heat in a wave of trials this year against the country’s tiny evangelical church.

Habiba Kouider, facing a three-year sentence after police stopped her while she was carrying several Christian books, has been kicked out of her family’s home. Kouider’s brothers learned about her conversion to Christianity after her case sparked national and international media attention.

In most cases the Christians have been charged under a presidential decree from February 2006 that restricts religious worship to government-approved buildings. The decree, known as Ordinance 06-03, also outlaws any attempt to convert Muslims to another faith.

The international community has been vocal about the Algerian government’s stance toward Christians. On June 6, some 30 U.S. congressmen sent a letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

They addressed human rights violations resulting from Ordinance 06-03, which has resulted in the closures of churches and criminal charges against Christians.

Algeria’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but loose terminology in its penal code – such as Article 144, which calls for up to five years of prison for “anyone who offends the Prophet and denigrates the tenets of Islam” – has allowed judges to give Islamic practice the force of law.

On Sept. 29 six men in Biskra, 420 kilometers (260 miles) south of Algiers, were sentenced to four years of prison for eating in public before sunset during the month of Ramadan, according to Algerian national daily Liberte. Muslims are required to abstain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset during this 30-day period.

An Oct. 6 editorial in Algerian daily El Watan lamented the decision as proof that religious rights were eroding in Algeria.

“The divine law itself does not provide for severe penalties, and even the Taliban regime is not as strict,” said editorial writer Reda Bekkat. “One can imagine a judge tomorrow questioning people [who were] walking on the streets at the hour of prayer because they are not at the mosque.”  

Report from Compass Direct News