Turkey Arrests 20 Allegedly Linked to Malatya Murders


Suspects in Ergenekon network long sought in homicide case to be questioned.

ISTANBUL, March 18 (CDN) — In simultaneous operations in nine different provinces of Turkey, authorities yesterday arrested 20 people suspected of playing a role in the murder of three Christians in Malatya in 2007, according to local news reports.

Zekeriya Oz, chief prosecutor overseeing the investigation into a clandestine network known as Ergenekon allegedly aimed at destabilizing the government, ordered the arrests based on information that linked the suspects to both the network and to the Malatya murders, Turkish press reported after Istanbul Chief of Police Chief Huseyin Capkin announced the sweep at a press conference yesterday.

“This was an operation related to the Malatya Zirve publishing house murders,” Capkin said, according to online news agency Malatya Guncel. “They were just arrested. This is connected to the Zirve publishing house. That’s the framework.”

Those apprehended include Ruhi Abat, a Muslim theology professor from Malatya Inonu University, Mehmet Ulger, a retired commander of the Malatya Gendarmerie in service at the time of the murders, and other members of the military. Oz will question the suspects in Istanbul, according to reports.

Police also raided the guesthouse of the Izmir Gendarmerie, seizing computers and documents. News sources listed Malatya, Siirt, Mugla, Mersin and Izmir as some of the cities in which authorities conducted raids and arrests.

A plaintiff attorney in the Malatya murder case, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, told Compass that the names on the list of those arrested were suspects he and his colleagues have been trying to convince the Malatya prosecutor to pursue since the court received a tip in May 2008.

“They are all the usual suspects,” Cengiz said. “All their names were mentioned in the first informant letter. Unfortunately, despite all our efforts, we couldn’t find anyone to investigate these allegations.”

The letter was the first of many informant letters the Malatya court has received since it started hearing the case on Nov. 22, 2007. Penned by someone who identified himself by the pseudonym “Ali Arslan” but unsigned, the letter claimed that Ulger incited Emre Gunaydin, one of the suspects, to carry out the murders and that he communicated with Gunaydin through Abat and two gendarmerie officers, reported Turkish English daily Today’s Zaman.

Cengiz said that, though it was the duty of the Malatya prosecutor to pursue leads in the informant letter, the prosecutor deferred the investigation to the military court, which in turn refused to investigate, claiming that the name on the letter was fake and the letter was not signed.

“It was like a joke,” Cengiz said.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Gunaydin.

From the beginning of the court hearings, plaintiff lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Cengiz told Compass that new evidence in the Ergenekon case might have convinced Oz to pursue those detained yesterday, and he called the move “a very big step” in shedding light on the Malatya case. He and colleague Erdal Dogan said their efforts – especially a request they sent to Oz on Jan. 18, 2010 asking him to investigate the allegations that Ergenekon members were behind the Malatya murders – surely helped to move the process along.

“I believe our efforts had a very big influence on this,” Cengiz said. “We submitted a petition and requested this from Oz last year. He is acting with the Malatya prosecutor on this.”

At the request of the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office, the Istanbul Police Department prepared a report last year revealing links between the Malatya murders and Ergenekon, according to Today’s Zaman. According to the report, Sevgi Erenerol, spokesperson for a bogus ultranationalist association known as the Turkish Orthodox Church, described foreign missionary activity as “spying” and “provoking.”

“A piece of evidence in the report was a conference on missionary activity given by Sevgi Erenerol … at the General Staff’s Strategic Research and Study Center,” reported Today’s Zaman.

Erenerol was arrested in connection with Ergenekon in 2008. Her suspected links with those thought to have masterminded the Zirve murders may have influenced yesterday’s arrests, Today’s Zaman reported.

She is also believed to be one of the key people behind false accusations against two members of Turkey’s Protestant Church, Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal, who were arrested in October 2006 for insulting Turkishness and Islam because they openly shared their faith.

After four years of legal battle, a judge finally acquitted the two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge. The two men are in the process of appealing the fine.

The Turkish Constitution grants all citizens the right to speak about their faith.

Plaintiff attorneys in the Malatya murders case said they believe yesterday’s arrests bring them closer to their requests that the Malatya murders case file be joined to that of the Ergenekon trial.

“From now on, we can predict it is very possible that our case will be sent to Istanbul soon and that these two cases will be merged,” said Cengiz.

The next Malatya hearing is scheduled for April 29.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

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Christians in Turkey Face Harassment; Murder Trial Stalls


Departure of presiding judge in Malatya case could further delay justice, attorneys fear.

ISTANBUL, March 15 (CDN) — Though the horrific scale of the 2007 Malatya murders has not been repeated in Turkey’s Protestant church, a recent report shows harassment continues to be a daily problem for the country’s Christians and churches.

Discrimination, slander and attacks against churches were among the examples of ongoing harassment that the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches (TEK) recorded in 2010.

In an eight-page report published earlier this year, TEK’s Committee for Religious Freedom and Legal Affairs outlined problems Protestants face. Turkish laws and “negative attitudes of civil servants” continue to make it nearly impossible for non-Muslims to establish places of worship, the committee reported. Three churches faced legal problems last year regarding their buildings, according to the report.

Missionary activities are still considered a national threat despite the existence of Turkish laws guaranteeing citizens the freedom to propagate and teach their faith, and children are victims of discrimination at school, according to the report. Though the Religious Education General Directorate for Higher Education and Training Committee allows non-Muslim students to stay out of religious classes, parents have reported cases in which they were not able to take their children out of such
courses.

“After four years [since the Malatya murders], Turkey’s religious freedoms have not improved as desired,” said attorney Erdal Dogan. “Christians, Alevis [a Shiite sub-community] and people of other beliefs are still not protected by law. And people of other faiths apart from Muslims have no legal status. Since racism is still prevalent in the context of freedom, discrimination in its turn has become a fact of life.”   

About a third of Turks are estimated to be Alevis.

Turkey rose to 30th place in Open Doors’ 2011 World Watch List of nations in which persecution against Christians takes place, up from 35th place the previous year. The Christian support organization cited deteriorating conditions as the secular country applied some laws in discriminatory ways against Christians.

TEK estimates that there are up to 3,500 Protestant Christians in Turkey.

 

Malatya Trial Stalled

In the trial of the five primary suspects in the murder of three Christians in Malatya, plaintiff attorneys fear the departure of one of the three judges to a Supreme Court of Appeals post in Ankara could further stall the nearly four-year-old case.

The loss of Judge Eray Gurtekin, who had presided over the case since it began on Nov. 22, 2007, could threaten to set back the progress of the court that has been examining links between the killers and alleged masterminds, according to Dogan, a plaintiff attorney in the case. Gurtekin was appointed as a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeals in Turkey’s capital Ankara last month.

“In a three-member panel [of judges], the change of one is not really helpful,” said Dogan, “because just as the previous presiding judge had started to understand and pay close attention to the case file, a new judge came in his place. I hope he will catch on quickly.”

The new judge joined the Malatya hearings panel this month, and Dogan said there could be more changes in the panel.

The 12th Istanbul High Criminal Court is expected to hear the testimony of another witness on March 29, and the court is trying to locate two more witnesses in order to shed light on the Malatya murders.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin.

From the beginning of the court hearings, prosecuting lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Questioned by the judges, Varol Bulent Aral – suspected of being one of the people who planned the murders and linked the killers to the masterminds – said he wanted the court to find out who was supporting the Zirve Publishing Co. He added a cryptic remark to Tilmann Geske’s widow, Suzanne Geske, who continues to live in Malatya with her three children and regularly attends the murder hearings.

“I want to ask Suzanne, what business does a German have here?”

The judges finally threw Aral out of the courtroom for contempt of court when he told the judges: “You are in the clouds!”

Prosecuting lawyers still hope judges will join the Malatya case files to the Cage Plan case, which is being tried at an Istanbul court.

The threat of violence against Christians continues. Last week Turkish news sources reported that Istanbul police arrested two suspects, ages 17 and 18, accused of plotting to assassinate a priest on the European side of the city. The Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office is examining their case.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Light Sentences for Attack on Christians in Indonesia Condemned


Prosecutors’ refusal to file felony charges said to encourage more violence.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 10 (CDN) — Human rights and Christian leaders said a West Java court’s light sentence for Islamic extremists who injured a church pastor and an elder will encourage more violence and religious intolerance.

After those involved in the Sept. 12, 2010 clubbing of the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak and the stabbing of elder Hasian Lumbantoruan Sihombing of the Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) in Ciketing received sentences of only five to seven months, the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace released a statement asserting that the judges’ panel was acting under pressure from Muslim extremists.

“The public will think that violence, intolerance, and obstruction of worship are part of their religious worship and duties,” the institute stated regarding the Feb. 24 sentences.

After prosecutors decided to file minor charges citing “insufficient evidence” for assault charges, the judges issued verdicts that have injured people’s sense of justice, and the light sentences set a “rotten” precedent for strengthening the rule of law in Indonesia, according to the institute.

“Specifically, the verdict neither is a deterrent nor does it educate the public that violent acts in the name of religion are serious matters,” according to the Setara statement.

Saor Siagian, attorney for the church, told Compass that the facts of the case had shown that the assailants should have been charged with joint assault under Section 170 of Indonesia’s penal code, which could have resulted in sentences of five to nine years. Instead, prosecutors opted to charge them only with maltreatment under Section 351.

The alleged planner of the attack, Murhali Barda, head of the Bekasi chapter of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), received a sentence of only five months and 15 days for “disorderly conduct” (Section 335) even though he should have been prosecuted for incitement and joint assault, Siagian said.

“The trial brought to light facts that pointed toward incitement by Murhali Barda via Facebook, text messages, and orders to the defendants to attack the congregation of HKBP on Sept. 12, 2010 at Ciketing,” said Siagian. “If he had been charged with Section 170 he would have been facing a five-to-nine-year sentence, and Section 160 [incitement] carries a six-year sentence. These are both felonies.”

Judges of the State Court in Bekasi, West Java handed down a seven-month sentence to Adji Ahmad Faisal, who stabbed church elder Sihombing; the prosecutor had asked for sentence of 10 months. Ade Firman, who clubbed Pastor Simanjuntak hard enough to send her to the hospital for treatment, was given a six-month sentence; prosecutors had requested an eight-month sentence. Two under-age defendants were found guilty and turned over to their parents.

Along with Barda of the FPI, eight other defendants received sentences of five months and 15 days: Ismail, Dede Tri Sutrisna, Panca Rano, Khaerul Anwar, Nunu Nurhadi, Roy Karyadi, Kiki Nurdiansyah, Suprianto and one identified only as Ismail; prosecutors had asked for six-month sentences.

During the trial, 100 members of the FPI demonstrated in front of the courthouse, demanding that Barda and the others be immediately released. As each sentence was read out, the demonstrators shouted “Allahu Akbar [God is greater].”

The lawyer for Barda, Shalih Mangara Sitompul, said the verdicts brought about peace between both parties. His client was found guilty of incidents that took place on Aug. 1 and 8, 2010, he said, questioning why the Sept. 12 attack became the basis for criminal prosecution as Barda did not even encounter Pastor Simanjuntak on that date.

Sitompul said he would appeal the verdict.

Pastor Simanjuntak said the light sentences showed that the state was unable to fully enforce the law.

“This country is more afraid of the masses than standing for justice,” she said. “That’s what happened in the state court in Bekasi. With heavy hearts we accept the verdict.”

The stabbing victim, Sihombing, said that he was not surprised by the light sentences.

“The verdicts were not just, but I don’t know what else to do,” he said. “I’ve just got to accept things.”

Indonesia is a country that follows the rule of law, he said, and therefore it is not right to give a light sentence for stabbing.

“Even so, as a Christian and elder of the congregation, I have forgiven the person who attacked me,” he said.

Attorney Siagian said the sentences will fail to act as a deterrent.

“It passively encourages future violence in the name of religion by radical groups against minorities – not only against the HKBP church, but also against citizens in other areas,” he said. “Also, the verdict shows that the judge sides with those who committed violent acts in the name of religion, and it is a threat to pluralism and diversity in Indonesia.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Jailed Pakistani Mother Living in Constant Fear, Husband Says


Murder of Punjab governor intensifies security concerns for woman sentenced to death.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 19 (CDN) — A mother of five sentenced to death on “blasphemy” charges has lived in constant fear since the killing of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, her husband told Compass as he came out of Sheikhupura District Jail after meeting with her last week.

Ashiq Masih said his wife, Asia Noreen (alternatively spelled Aaysa, and also called Asia Bibi), is “very afraid.” Her conviction triggered a violent chain of events in Pakistan, including the Jan. 4 murder of Taseer by his bodyguard after the governor voiced support for her.

“She knows the Muslims have announced a prize on her head and would go to any lengths to kill her,” a visibly nervous Masih told Compass. “The governor’s murder in broad daylight has put her in a state of paranoia.”

He added that threats by Islamist extremists have dampened Noreen’s hope of getting justice from the Lahore High Court, where her appeal against the conviction has been filed but yet to be taken up.

Wearing a dark cloak to hide his identity, Masih was visibly nervous after meeting with her on Jan. 11.

“She was asking me about the situation outside,” he said. “I tried to console her, but she knows it’s really bad. She’s also worried about the children.”

The mother of two children and stepmother to three others, Noreen asked him to appeal for more prayers for her, he said.

“Please tell everyone to pray for her,” he said.

Masih said prison authorities had improved Noreen’s security considerably after Taseer’s killing.

“She’s being kept in a separate cell with a warden deployed 24 hours for her security,” he said. “Only I am allowed to meet her, but even I am searched completely before they bring her out for the meeting. I just hope and pray she keeps safe inside the prison.”

Still, prison officials have reportedly said she will be transferred to another prison soon because of security concerns.

The female warden tasked with Noreen’s security the day Taseer was killed told Compass of the Christian woman’s reaction to the news.

“I was escorting her for her routine walk on the evening Governor Taseer was gunned down,” said the warden, who requested anonymity. “We were passing by a barrack when the news broke out on TV that the governor was dead … She stood there in shock for some time, and then she started screaming and crying.”

The warden added that she helped Noreen back to her cell, “as she could barely walk and kept weeping.”

“She cried all evening and also refused to have supper,” the warden said. “The governor’s killing shattered her. The governor’s visit had boosted her morale – she was very happy and every time I spoke to her, I could feel the joy in her heart. She shared with me how she had lost hope, and how God had sent Taseer to help her. A particular verse that she often repeats is from John 14:1, which says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.”

The warden said she was assigned Noreen’s security following reports that attempts would be made to kill her inside the jail. Since Taseer’s killing, she said, Noreen has grown suspicious of everyone around her.

“She’s only taken out of her cell for an hour, but even then she is fearful of her surroundings, even though all the other inmates are locked up before she’s taken out for exercise,” she said. “One can imagine how insecure she must be feeling after Taseer was killed by one of his own guards.”

Sheikhupura District Jail Superintendent Sheikh Khalid, who recently assumed charge, told Compass that Noreen was the most “high value” inmate of the prison and that he was not going to take any chances regarding her security.

“She is on the hit list of several extremist organizations,” he said, “and there are reports that she might be targeted inside the jail – moreover, she has a 30 million rupee [US$350,000] prize on her head. This is enough incentive for anyone to kill her.”

He said the prison had enhanced its security measures, and additional forces have been employed to guard the premises at night.

“No one except her husband can meet her,” Khalid said. “I have also directed her not to eat anything given to her by any person other than the wardens deployed for her security. We are trying our best to keep her safe, but life and death are in the hands of Allah.”

Noreen’s lawyer, S.K. Chaudhry, declined to discuss the future course of legal action because of the sensitive nature of the case.

Noreen has been condemned to death for insulting Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, a charge she denies. A week after her conviction, the governor of Punjab province visited her in jail. Taseer, a liberal Muslim, did not mince words as he assured Noreen of his support. He told her he believed that the charges against her were fabricated and that there had been a miscarriage of justice. He promised that he would recommend a presidential pardon for her.

During that visit, he called Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes “a black law” and called for their repeal – a demand that ultimately resulted in his brutal killing, as one of his own police bodyguards believed that Taseer had blasphemed by criticizing the law.

Masih, Noreen’s husband, said he was about to have lunch when he first heard the news of the killing of Taseer on TV.

“I had taken the first bite when the news flashed that Governor Taseer had been killed,” he said. “I was stunned, couldn’t swallow the food either … no words can explain that moment.”

He denied government reports that it was providing his family security, saying they were living in a safe-house arranged by “some friends” and surviving on money provided by Christian organizations. Taseer’s murder, he added, had shaken the little confidence the family had after the governor’s assurance of support to them.

“They killed the governor for supporting her,” he said. “He died for us, but it seems his sacrifice has gone in vain.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Somali Mother of Four Slaughtered for her Faith


Al Shabaab militants carry out ritual slaying of Christian found to be ‘apostate.’

NAIROBI, Kenya, January 17 (CDN) — A mother of four was killed for her Christian faith on Jan. 7 on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia by Islamic extremists from al Shabaab militia, a relative said.

The relative, who requested anonymity, said Asha Mberwa, 36, was killed at 5:15 p.m. in Warbhigly village; the Islamic extremists from the insurgent group had arrested her outside her house the previous day at 8:30 a.m. She died when the militants cut her throat in front of villagers who came out of their homes as witnesses.

She is survived by her children – ages 12, 8, 6 and 4 – and her husband, who was not home at the time she was apprehended. They had married in 1993.

Her relative, whose location is also withheld for security reasons, said he had phoned her on Jan. 5 to try to make arrangements for moving her family out of the area. Al Shabaab extremists, who control large parts of Mogadishu, were able to monitor the conversation and confirm that she had become a Christian, he said.

He told Compass by phone that Mberwa feared that she and her family members’ lives were threatened.

“Asha had been receiving threatening messages” after al Shabaab monitored her previous communications with him, he said.

Her husband, Abdinazir Mohammed Hassan, fled to an unknown location. Mberwa’s relative said a “good Samaritan” in Mogadishu was caring for her four children. The traumatized children continue to weep and cry out for their mother, he said.

Al Shabaab insurgents control much of southern and central Somalia and have embarked on a campaign to rid the country of its hidden Christian population. With estimates of al Shabaab’s size ranging from 3,000 to 7,000, the insurgents seek to impose a strict version of sharia (Islamic law).  

Al Shabaab was among several splinter groups that emerged after Ethiopian forces removed the Islamic Courts Union, a group of sharia courts, from power in Somalia in 2006. Said to have ties with al Qaeda, al Shabaab has been designated a terrorist organization by several western governments.

The transitional government in Mogadishu fighting to retain control of the country treats Christians little better than the al Shabaab insurgents do. While proclaiming himself a moderate, President Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed has embraced a version of sharia that mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam.

Report from Compass Direct News

Plinky Prompt: If You Could Enact One New Law, What would it be?


O OUTRO LADO DO MEDO É A LIBERDADE (The Other Side of the Fear is the Freedom)

Well, this question seems to indicate that I’m some sort of a dictator as all power seems to be invested in me. If this was the case, perhaps the first law I would enact would be to return the country and the government to the people and re-establish democracy.

Powered by Plinky

Islamists Raid House Churches in West Java


Demonstrators drive out 100 Christians in one service, stop worship in others.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 18 (CDN) — About 200 demonstrators from hard-line Islamic organizations in West Java on Sunday (Dec. 12) disrupted the worship of a church in Rancaekek district, Bandung, driving more than 100 worshippers from the building.

Members of the Islamic Defenders Front, the Indonesian Ulama Forum and the Islamic Reformist Movement arrived with the Civil Service Police Unit of Rancaekek district and sealed the house, thus leaving other churches that use it without a worship venue. The protestors also disrupted the worship of six other churches meeting in homes the same day.

The demonstrators arrived at 9 a.m., when the Huria Kristen Batak Protestant (of HKBP) Bethania church building had begun worship in the building where a pastor and his family live. The protestors urged the local government to seal the building immediately because it was a private house rather than registered as a place of worship.

About 10 minutes into the church’s worship, the demonstrators removed by force more than 100 members of the HKBP church on Teratai Street, the pastor said.

“Because they were fearful, children and women were crying when they came out of their place of worship,” the Rev. Badia Hutagalung told Compass by phone.

Hutagalong, 26, lives in the second story of the building. Church officials declined to say who owned the home.

Hutagalung said the congregation resisted the temptation to clash with the Islamic protestors, who were using ambulance sirens to disrupt the service.

The Civil Service Police Unit of Rancaekek district then affixed a document on the front of the building declaring, “This house has been sealed because it has violated Bandung Regency Regulation No. 16, of the year 2009, about building administration.”

HKBP elder Jawadi Hutapea said the document was signed by the head of Rancaekek district, Meman Nurjaman, and the chief of the Civil Service police.

Nurjaman reportedly said use of a private house as a place of worship violated the cited regulation.

“It should be only a place to stay but in fact functioned as a place of worship,” Nurjaman told Tempo News. “Now we’ve sealed the house. From now on, the house may only be used as a house to live in.”

Hutagalung said the church was using the house because it had not been able to obtain permission to establish a church building under conditions imposed by Indonesian law. The Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006 requires places of worship to obtain the approval of at least 60 persons from the local community, mandates there be at least 90 church members, and the church must be approved by the the village head.

“These terms are very difficult for us to fullfil,” Hutagalung told Compass.

The HKBP congregation was established in Rancaekek district in 1999, he added, because of the absence of a church for ethnic Bataknese in the area.

District head Nurjaman reportedly suggested that the church use a room at the College of Public Administration in Jatinangor, Sumedang Regency. Hutagalung said his congregation could do that, but he said not all the churches that use the building could merge together there.

“If we are forced to worship with other churches in the college complex, it is the same as closing the HKBP church in Rancaekek,” Hutagalung said.

He said he had received the suggestion from the district head for the churches to merge worship in the college complex a few weeks ago. Hutagalung said he has sought permission for the churches to worship separately in the college complex, but so far he has not received a response from the college building administrator.

If the HKBP church has not found an alternative venue this Sunday, the congregation plans to worship in front of the house that has been sealed, he said.

 

Other Churches Targeted

Other churches based in homes in the district met with the same opposition from Islamic protestors.

The Indonesian Evangelical Tabernacle Church (GKII), which began 20 years ago, met at 9:15 a.m. but the Islamic demonstrators appeared and insisted that they disband immediately, said a GKII pastor identified only as the Rev. Margaretha.

She said worship ended within 20 minutes because the protestors broke through an iron fence to force their way in.

“The mob lifted and slammed the fence until it was damaged,” Pastor Margaretha.

About half of the 60-member congregation, which consists mainly of women, was crying, she said. The protestors forced her to sign a letter promising not to use the house as a place of worship.

“They also damaged the door and the Christmas tree,” Pastor Margaretha said. “In the stressful situation, finally I signed the letter.”

Margaretha added that the demonstrators also took four chairs used for worship.

The Pentecostal Tabernacle Church also began its worship on Sunday (Dec. 12) before the Islamist demonstrators interfered.

The Rev. Filemon Sirait told Compass by phone that when the congregations began to worship at 9:30 a.m., the Islamic protestors suddenly massed in front of the house and forced them to stop.

Seeing that the demonstrators were willing to use force, the congregation finished their worship after only 15 minutes, he said.

“We worshiped only in prayer after that time,” Sirait said.

The demonstrators then barged into the house with a document for the pastor and congregation to sign stipulating that they would not use the place for worship, he said.

“Because we were depressed and fearful, finally we signed the letter stating that we agreed not to use the residential house as a place of worship,” Sirait said.

The church was established in Rancaekek district 12 years ago.

The Muslim protestors also disrupted the worship of the Church of Pentecost-Rancaekek, led by the Rev. Bungaran Silitonga. Established 10 years ago, the church has 40 members.

Silitonga told Compass that the Muslim demonstrators stormed into their house at around 2 p.m. and took 37 chairs used for worship activities.

“They took 37 chairs on the order of the district of Rancaekek,” he said.

Silitonga called the head of Rancaekek district to complain about the stolen chairs, and by evening the official had found and returned them, he said.

Islamist protestors reportedly succeeded in sealing five of seven houses used for Christian worship on Sunday. Other churches whose house worship was disrupted were the Indonesian Christian Church, a Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Christian Church.

Report from Compass Direct News

Life on Hold for Egyptian Christian Arrested for his Faith


Unresolved charge of ‘defaming religion’ leaves him in perpetual limbo.

CAIRO, Egypt, December 16 (CDN) — An Egyptian who left Islam to become a Christian and consequently lost his wife, children and business is waiting to see if the government will now take away his freedom for “defaming” Islam.

Ashraf Thabet, 45, is charged with defaming a revealed religion, Article 98f of the Egyptian Penal Code. The charges stem from Thabet’s six-year search for spiritual meaning that eventually led him to become a Christian. During his search, he shared his doubts about Islam and told others what he was learning about Jesus Christ.

Local religious authorities, incensed at Thabet’s ideas, notified Egypt’s State Security Intelligence service (SSI), which arrested and charged him with defamation. If found guilty, Thabet would face up to five years in jail. But because prosecutors have made no move to try the case, Thabet lives in limbo and is subject to a regular barrage of death threats from people in his community in Port Said in northeast Egypt.

“I don’t know what is going to happen in the future,” Thabet said. “They’re making life hard for me. I can’t get back my computer. I can’t get back anything.”

 

Searching

Thabet said that before his search began he was a committed Muslim who did his best to observe its rules, including those for prayer and fasting.

“I wasn’t an extremist, but I was committed to praying and to reading the Quran,” Thabet said. “I went to the Hajj. I did the usual things. I followed the Quran for the most part.”

Despite his efforts, Thabet admitted that his understanding of God was based on fear and routine, nearly rote obedience.

“There was no spiritual relationship between myself and God,” he said. “In general I was always cautious about my relationship with God. I didn’t want to do anything wrong.”

Thabet started looking at Christian Web sites, but his real interest in Christianity began when he watched the film, “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.

“When I watched ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ I was very touched by Jesus’ story, and I wanted to read more about Him,” Thabet said. “So I asked a friend how I could know more about Jesus, and he told me, ‘The Bible.’”

His friend, a Christian Copt, did not get him a Bible until a month later because, Thabet thinks, he was afraid of being accused of proselytizing. Thabet began reading the Bible, which had a powerful impact on him, especially the Sermon on the Mount.

“I felt inside myself that these were the words of God,” he said. “The Bible tells people to give and to give out freely, so these words couldn’t be the words of a human being or a [mere] person, because human beings are inherently selfish.”

Thabet was also struck by the lives that the early followers of Jesus led, especially their willingness to lose everything, including their lives, for Christ.

The final factor that led Thabet to become a Christian came from Islam’s “Ninety-Nine Names of Allah,” attributes of God according to the Quran and tradition. In the names, God is called a “healer” a “resurrecter” and “just.”

“I started to compare all these characteristics with the characteristics of Jesus, and I saw that Jesus had a lot of the characteristics that God had, not only the human characteristics, being just and being kind, but there were similarities in the supernatural characteristics, like that He raised people from the dead,” he said. “In the Quran only God could raise people from the dead. I noticed that Jesus could raise people from the dead, and that He could heal people. Once I started to notice
the similarities between God and Jesus, I started believing that Jesus is the Son of God.”

Thabet said he cared about others “going the right way,” so he started having conversations with Muslim friends.

At first, people respected Thabet or tolerated what was seen as an awkward curiosity. But after he told his friends they were “only Muslim by inheritance,” they started to turn against him. They asked him what he was going to be if he wasn’t going to be a Muslim.

“I told them I started to read about Christianity, and I was starting to believe in it, and that’s when they brought the elders to talk to me,” he said.

The meeting didn’t go well. The Islamic leaders were unable to answer his questions and ended up yelling at him. Then they reported him to the SSI.

 

Arrest

The SSI summoned Thabet and questioned him on his doubts about Islam.

Thabet said by the time he was done with the interrogation, the SSI officer looked almost sick and told him not to talk to anyone else in Port Said about religion.

“I don’t encourage you to talk about these things with people or to open up these types of discussions, because it will just provoke people and make them angry,” the officer told him, according to Thabet.

Two days later, Thabet said, the SSI ordered him to report for more questioning, this time with an officer who specialized in religious issues and countering missionaries. The officer wanted to know what made him start to doubt Islam. He asked specific questions about what Web sites he had been on and what books he had read, and whether he had been baptized.

Thabet said that at the time of his questioning, he was still struggling with his new beliefs. Part of him wanted something that would restore his faith in Islam, so he went to Internet chat rooms for religious discussion.

“A part of me wanted to feel that I was wrong, that there was an answer to my questions,” he said. “I was looking for someone who would say ‘No, no, this is how it is,’ and that I would regain my trust back or not have any more doubts. But none of the people I talked to could answer me. They didn’t say anything to any effect.”

Thabet said he was always respectful, but Muslims found his questions provocative and became increasingly angry.

Eventually police came for Thabet. On March 22 at 3 a.m., he said, 11 officers from the SSI cut the power to his home, kicked down his front door and assaulted him in front of his crying wife and children.

Thabet quickly pulled away from the fight, once he realized they were officers from the SSI. The men swarmed over Thabet’s home, seizing his computer and every book and CD he owned. They took him to jail.

Authorities interrogated Thabet non-stop for 12 hours, took a break and then interrogated him for seven more, he said.

Initially he was held for 15 days. Then authorities ordered he be held for another 15 days. Then they extended it again. Thabet said he spent the entire time in solitary confinement, and he wasn’t informed of the “defamation of religion” charge against him until the end of 132 days in jail. He said he was not tortured, however, and that his interrogators and jailers were largely civil.

There was more hardship waiting for him at home. Muslim leaders in his neighborhood convinced his wife to divorce him and take his 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.

“They gave her the money to file for a divorce, a car and another person to marry,” Thabet said, adding that the Muslim leaders had offered him money too if he would stay in Islam. “In the beginning they tried to bribe me to come back to Islam, but I refused.”

Thabet has only had a few brief moments with his children since he was arrested, mainly when his soon-to-be ex-wife came to their home to gather a few belongings. If she goes through with the divorce, according to Egyptian law it is likely Thabet will lose all parental rights to his children, including any right to see them.

In Egypt and most other Muslim-majority countries, leaving Islam is considered ample grounds for termination of parental rights. Thabet said the religious leaders consider him “lost to Islam” and are trying to “save” his wife and children.

He filed a report with police about the Muslim leaders bribing his wife – and about another man who swindled money from him – but police ignored both reports, he said.

Kamal Fahmi of Set My People Free to Worship Me, a group headquartered in Cairo dedicated to raising awareness about the problems faced by Muslims who become Christians, said that under Islam, “Muslim converts don’t have the right to exist.”

Arrests like Thabet’s are common in Egypt.

“It is a tactic used to intimidate people and scare them from leaving Islam and taking alternative beliefs or moral codes,” Fahmi said.

In Islam as it is most often practiced in Egypt, merely expressing doubt about Islam is considered wrong, Fahmi said. Questioning any of its claims is considered blasphemy and is punishable by imprisonment under a variety of charges in Egypt; it is punishable by death in some other countries.

“Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Muhammad,’ is considered defaming Islam,” Fahmi said. “Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Islam as it is not true,’ can lead to death [murder], as you are considered an apostate,” Fahmi said. “Even rejecting the Islamic moral codes can lead to the same thing. Criticizing any of the sharia [Islamic law] is considered blasphemy.”

 

The Future

Thabet said he is uncertain what the future holds. He was released on Aug. 1 but, because he has the defamation of religion charge over his head – with no indication of when the case could go to court – he is unable to work and cannot even obtain a driver’s license.

His savings are almost depleted, forcing him to borrow money from a Muslim friend. He is concerned about re-arrest and receives death threats on a regular basis. He is too afraid to leave his apartment on most days.

“There are a lot of phone threats,” Thabet said. Noting he had been baptized three years ago, he said he has received phone threats in which someone tells him, “We are going to baptize you again with blood.”

On numerous occasions while talking in Internet chat rooms, he has been told, “Look outside the window, we know where you are,” Thabet said.

In recent days Muslims are angry at converts and at Christians in general, he said. “They’re very worked up about religious issues.”

He said he wants to leave Egypt but admits that, at his age, it would be very hard to start over. And if he stays in Egypt, he said, at least he will have a chance to see his children, however brief those encounters may be.

Since Thabet was released from jail on Aug. 1, authorities have seized his passport and summoned him four times for questioning. He said he thinks the SSI is trying to wear him down.

“Everyone is telling me that they [the government] want to make my life hard,” he said. “The problem here in Egypt is the religious intolerance that is found in government ministries. The intolerance has reached a point where they can’t think straight. Their intolerance makes them unaware of their own intolerance.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Afghan Authorities Block Lawyer from Visiting Jailed Christian


Second suspect accused of ‘blasphemy’ is government informant, accused says.

ISTANBUL, December 9 (CDN) — A Christian in Afghanistan facing “apostasy” charges punishable by death is still without legal representation after authorities blocked a foreign lawyer’s attempt to visit him in prison, sources said.

A Christian lawyer from the region who requested anonymity travelled to Kabul on behalf of Christian legal rights organization Advocates International two weeks ago to represent 45-year-old Said Musa (alternatively spelled Sayed Mossa). Authorities denied him access to Musa and to his indictment file.

“If a man is not entitled to define his own beliefs, and to change those ideas, under the existing constitutional order of Afghanistan, then how is this government more moral than the Taliban’s?” the lawyer said in an e-mail to Compass.

After several court hearing postponements, Musa appeared before a judge on Nov. 27 without prior notice. Rejecting the case file as deficient, the judge sent it to the attorney general’s office for corrections, according to the lawyer. The lawyer said he has deduced that the file was missing a formal indictment and other “incriminating” evidence.

The legal expert said that according to Afghan law, Musa is entitled to see a copy of the indictment and review the evidence against him, but authorities have denied him both rights. If the prosecutor does not present the court with an indictment within 15 days of arrest, the attorney said, an accused person has the right to be released. Musa has been in jail since May 31.

 

Suspicious Second Suspect

The prosecutor in charge of western Kabul, Din Mohammad Quraishi, said two men, Musa and Ahmad Shah, were accused of conversion to another religion, according to Agence France-Presse. But Musa’s letters from prison and other sources indicate that Shah is a government informant posing as a Christian.

Musa and Shah appeared before the judge on Nov. 27 “shackled and chained” to each other, according to a source who was present. Though Shah, who was also arrested six months ago, has denied he is a Christian, the prosecutor said there was “proof” against him.  

Musa and the other sources claim that Shah is an informant posing as a Christian in order to damage him and other Afghan Christians. They claim that Shah allegedly sent images of Christians worshiping to the country’s most popular broadcaster, Noorin TV, which aired them in May.

The broadcast appeared on an Afghan TV show called “Sarzanin-e-man,” or “My Homeland,” hosted by Nasto Nadiri, 27, an outspoken opponent of the government and a parliamentary hopeful. Noorin TV station is opposed to the government and does what it can to “embarrass” it, a source said.

The broadcast put in motion the events that got Musa arrested, sources said. The hour-long TV show sparked protests throughout the country against Christians and a heated debate in parliament. In early June, the deputy secretary of the Afghan Parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, called for the execution of converts from Islam.

Many converts to Christianity left the country, according to sources, and many were arrested, though the exact number is unknown.

Musa was concerned about the public outcry against Christians and went to his employer, the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent (ICRC), to request personal leave the morning of May 31. Authorities arrested him after he left the building, and his family could not locate him for nearly two months.

The Christian suffered sexual abuse, beatings, mockery and sleep deprivation because of his faith in Jesus in the first months of his detention. Last month, after quiet diplomatic efforts, authorities transferred him to the Kabul Detention Center in the Governor’s Compound. There have been no reports of mistreatment since he was transferred.

The lawyer who tried to visit him said that all Afghans in the country are assumed to be Muslims, and this assumption is deeply ingrained in the culture. The result is lack of justice for the “deviants,” he said.

“It is the greatest shame on a family, clan and the nation, that someone would consider to leave Islam,” the lawyer told Compass. “I [saw] the face of the attorney general literally darken in distaste when he realized we came to assist this man who committed such a shameful offense. Therefore there are no ‘rights’ Christians can claim.”

The lawyer said that from the perspective of the court, if Musa continues to stand for his faith in Jesus, he will certainly be found guilty of “apostasy,” or leaving Islam.

Though no one knows when a court hearing will take place, monitors expect it could be any day and, as before, could come without warning. Musa is still looking for an Afghan lawyer that will agree to defend him in court.

In his latest letters from prison, Musa asked Christians to continue to pray for him and Afghanistan and “not give up.”

An amputee with a prosthetic leg, Musa worked for the ICRC for 15 years, fitting patients for prosthetic limbs. He stepped on a landmine when serving in the Afghan Army, and his injury required the amputation of his right leg below the knee, according to World Magazine.

Married and the father of six young children, Musa has been a Christian for eight years.

 

Another Christian in Prison

Another Afghan Christian is in prison for his faith, sources said. Shoib Assadullah, 25, was arrested on Oct. 21 for giving a New Testament to a man who reportedly turned him in to authorities.

Assadullah is in a holding jail in a district of Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan. Sources said his family has been unsuccessful at procuring his release despite paying bribes to officials. As in Musa’s case, because of the sensitivity of the charges, no lawyer has agreed to defend him. Assadullah has not reported any mistreatment while in prison.

He has stood before a judge at least once since his arrest. The judge asked him what faith he followed, and Assadullah told him he was a Christian, said a source who requested anonymity.  

Although Assadullah’s family has tolerated his new faith, they are not pleased with it, the source said, and a few days ago his father disowned him. Assadullah became a Christian about five years ago.

“He wants others to know that he is not frightened, and that his faith is strong,” the source told Compass. “He is desperately missing having a Bible.”

Assadullah asked that people pray that Afghan believers would stay strong in their faith, the source said.

Musa and Assadullah are the only known Christian converts from Islam in prison in Afghanistan, and both face probable apostasy charges punishable by death under sharia (Islamic law), which is still applied in the country.

Last month, in its 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, the U.S. State Department reported that respect for religious freedom in Afghanistan diminished in the last year, “particularly for Christian groups and individuals.”

The constitution states that Islam is the “religion of the state” and that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” The report stated that conversion from Islam is understood by Islamic clergy, as well as many citizens, to contravene the tenets of Islam.

Nevertheless, the country has signed the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulating religious freedom, including the freedom to change one’s faith. The nation’s constitution also provides a measure of religious liberties under Article 2, but Article 3 limits the application of all laws if they are contrary to the “beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”

Another source who requested anonymity said the proceedings against Musa and Assadullah typify the intolerance and abhorrence inherent in Islam toward open-mindedness and progress. He said that the only sentence possible would be death, and that if Musa were freed his only recourse would be to leave the country or be killed.

The source voiced exasperation toward the international community and defenders of human rights for not speaking up for the Christians in prison.

“We try as much as we can to push things in order to reveal this unfair situation, knowing that Afghanistan is a signatory of the Human Rights Convention,” he said. “But this serious failure of human rights is more or less accepted as a case ‘so sensitive’ that nobody wants to really fight against.”

According to the state department report, estimates of the size of the Christian community in Afghanistan range from 500 to 8,000.

Report from Compass Direct News

Two Evangelists in Vietnam Sentenced to Prison


Christians receive six and four years respectively for ‘undermining national unity.’

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, November 30 (CDN) — Two Christian evangelists, Ksor Y Du, 47, and Kpa Y Co, 30, were sentenced this month to six and four years in prison respectively for “undermining national unity.”

Ksor and Kpa, of the Vietnam Good News Mission (VGNM) church, received the harsh sentences on Nov. 15. House arrest of four and two years respectively also was added to the sentences, according to church sources and Vietnam’s Phap Luat (Law) newspaper. Both evangelists, who are of the Ede minority, live in Song Hinh district of Phu Yen Province, where there are some 20 VGNM congregations.

Ksor was one of many thousands of ethnic minority people in Vietnam’s Central Highland that participated in demonstrations in 2004 against religious oppression and illegal confiscation of their traditional lands. Many of the demonstrators were Christians. Along with hundreds of others, he was caught trying to flee to Cambodia following the harsh military crackdown after the demonstrations. He spent four years in prison and another year under house arrest.

In May of 2009, Ksor joined the VGNM, a house church network that has grown from 14 congregations meeting in homes in 2007 to 360 today. In spite of many attempts to register house churches, as provided by Vietnam’s religion regulations, only three congregations have been given local permission to carry on religious activities.

In September 2009, Ksor underwent three weeks of interrogation, and authorities pressured him to refrain from making international phone calls. His imprisonment had left him destitute and in poor health, and he has said he told authorities that he only called a relative in the United States three times to ask for funds for medicine and to repair his dilapidated house.

Phap Luat reported that he made 58 international phone calls, a gross exaggeration according to Ksor’s family. The newspaper reported that Ksor made the calls to take orders from abroad to incite people to join the illegal “Dega” church, which allegedly aimed to cause political unrest and demand independence for ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands.

Vietnamese authorities remain extremely suspicious of anyone who has dared to participate in demonstrations, especially if they become church leaders.

The two evangelists were arrested on Jan. 27. Ksor was on his way to the police station to answer yet another summons when he was intercepted by police, who tied his hands and dragged him behind a motorcycle to the station, according to village sources. He fell many times and arrived bloodied and bruised.

Both men were held 10 months without charges until their Nov. 15 trial, the area sources said. Authorities brought Ksor’s teenage daughter to prison and told her to testify that her father had made many overseas phone calls, according to VGNM leaders. When she refused, a female officer twice slapped her hard across the face before sending her away, the church leaders said.

During interrogation, authorities ordered both evangelists to accuse VGNM leaders of illegally starting the organization and to accuse Pastor Mai Hong Sanh of opening an illegal Bible school in Buonmathuot, sources said. The authorities grew angry when they refused.

During Ksor’s pre-trial incarceration, police from the commune, district and province visited his wife many times and pressured her to renounce her Christian faith, sources said. She steadfastly refused. They tried to entice her by telling her that if the family recanted they would be provided a monthly sack of rice, a new house and that her husband would be released immediately.

Ksor’s wife, A Le H’Gioi, attended the trial even though she had not been provided permission as required by Vietnamese law. She told church leaders that the presiding judge of the People’s Court addressed the matter of their faith directly, asking her husband, “Do you still insist on following the religion?” The judge also asked him, “After serving in prison already, do you still insist on staying with the Vietnam Good News Mission?”

She said her husband answered that he would not give up his faith in God even if it meant death. Christian leaders said the line of questioning contradicted assertions that the conviction and sentencing of the two evangelists had nothing to do with religion.

VGNM leaders said there were many other irregularities in the arrest and trial of the two evangelists, such as authorities’ failure to provide legal papers to their families as required by law.

 

Land Seized

In another incident against Protestants this month, some 200 police, local defense forces and young thugs attempted to seize church land in Quang Ngai city in Central Vietnam on Nov. 11, assaulting the pastor’s wife in the process. Authorities called off the land seizure that evening.

The property belongs to the Vietnam Christian Mission, a church with full legal recognition since 2007. Though the Quang Ngai congregation has complete legal papers for the property, local authorities have been threatening to seize it for some time, according to the long-time pastor of the church, Nguyen Luan Ke.

Pastor Nguyen, in his early 80s, reported that the assailants assaulted his wife, causing her to faint and fall. Details and photos were posted on the Nguoi Viet Web site. Authorities seized two of Pastor Nguyen’s sons and put them in a paddy wagon but left the door unlocked, a church source said.

The two men escaped, taking refuge in the parsonage along with other members of the pastor’s family, and frantically phoned for help. One call reached a Christian leader who was in Hanoi. This leader alerted central government authorities, who promised to look into the incident. Pastor Nguyen said the mob withdrew at the end of the day, having terrified him and his family.

Vietnam has come under heightened international scrutiny for the confiscation in May of a century-old Catholic cemetery in Con Dau, near Danang in central Vietnam, that resulted in one death. Authorities reportedly intend to turn the property over to a private company to build a tourist resort. The incident led to the flight of more than 40 Catholics to Thailand.

On Oct. 27, six parishioners were sentenced to prison, some for 12 months and some for nine. This event has garnered much more international publicity than the Protestant ones above.

In its annual report on religious freedom released on Nov. 17, the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom pointed to some progress in Vietnam but devoted several pages to religious liberty violations, noticeably against Protestants.

Vietnam’s state-controlled media reacted strongly. The Nov. 20 issue of Lao Dong (Workers) newspaper published an article entitled, “Abusing Religion Issues to Sabotage Vietnam.” It described religion as connected with “imperialist and hostile forces.”

The same day, Nhan Dan (People’s Daily) accused the state department report of being based on “distorted information.” It called on U.S. officials “to verify the events right in Vietnam,” the very thing many observers say U.S. diplomats in Vietnam do.

On Nov. 22, a Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People’s Army) article described critics of religious liberty abuses as “black hearts under the name of angels.”

Some observers believe that the Five-Year Communist Party Congress to take place in early 2011 is contributing to an uptick in harsh measures against religions and human rights activists.

Protestant church leaders in Vietnam lament that no officials who have taken heavy-handed actions against religious groups and their leaders have ever been called to account, thus violating Vietnam’s own laws and regulations.

Report from Compass Direct News