Iran’s revolution celebration brings rejection of Islam


Iranian authorities clashed with opposition supporters Thursday as thousands rallied in Tehran to mark the 31st anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic. Arrests and tear gas marred the celebration, reports MNN.

Evangelist Sammy Tippit broadcasts television programming into Iran via satellite, and he says what’s happening is ironic. "There was a revolution that took place that brought the people back to Islam and made this an Islamic republic. As a result of that, the people have now seen Islam for what it is, and they are rejecting that."

One Iranian leader says the most effective evangelist in Iran is the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. "When he came in, it exposed what real Islam is all about." Iranians have lived under the oppression he imposed and are rejecting it.

Tippit says Iranians are looking for freedom. "The greatest freedom in the world is in Christ, so that’s why so many people are turning to Christ," says Tippit.

He adds, "Christians have had a wonderful opportunity during this time [to share the Gospel], but it’s also been a very difficult time for them." He continues, "The government has used the Christians as kind of a ‘whipping boy’. They say, ‘Okay, we have to take this out on someone,’ so they’ve really cracked down on Christians."

Tippit, who is considered an enemy of the state, says there is a huge need right now. The "many people coming to Christ [need training] to help build up the church during this time of great stress that’s going on."

That training is done outside Iran. Tippit says, "We have our Web site that’s in the Farsi language. And, we have our conference in what I call ‘safe places’ where we bring leaders from outside the country and inside the country to train them and help them to grow in Christ."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Plot Targeting Turkey’s Religious Minorities Allegedly Discovered


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Murders Termed ‘Operations’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Surprise to Christians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News 

Somali Christian Flees Refugee Camp Under Death Threat


Flood of refugees to camp in Kenya brings Muslims hostile to his family.

NAIROBI, Kenya, December 9 (CDN) — Somali Christian Mohamud Muridi Saidi last month fled a refugee camp near Kenya’s border with Sudan after Muslims threatened to kill him.

For Saidi, a father of four, the recent relocation of 13,000 refugees from the Dadaab refugee camp near the Somali border to the Kakuma camp, where he had lived since 2002, brought its own nightmare: the arrival of Muslims from Somalia’s Lower Juba region who knew of his father’s Christian activities in his home village.

After Somalis four times threw stones at Saidi’s iron sheet home in the Kakuma refugee camp – once in mid-October, and again on Nov. 17, 21 and 22 – word spread that they intended to kill him. Case workers for a Lutheran World Federation (LWF) service group confirmed the death threat.

“I know the attackers are the Muslims who forced us to leave Somalia in 2002,” Saidi told Compass in Nairobi, adding that he was unable to bring his family with him when he fled on Nov. 23. “They are not safe, and that is why we should be out of Kakuma as soon as possible.”

Saidi has reported the attacks to the LWF service group as well as to police in Kakuma. Case workers for the LWF service group confirmed that the stoning of his home had escalated to the threat of him being assassinated.

“Saidi has security-related issues fueled by the new refugees from Dadaab,” said one LWF service group worker, who requested anonymity for security reasons, last month. “I did some investigation and found out that Saidi’s life is threatened.”

On one of the occasions in which his house was stoned as his family slept, Saidi turned on a flashlight and neighbors rose up, scaring off the assailants.

He and his family had enjoyed some tranquility since fleeing raging conflict in Somalia, but that ceased with the transference of the Somali Muslims from Dadaab refugee camp to Kakuma in August. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees relocated the refugees to ease congestion in the crowded Dadaab camps of Ifo, Hagadera and Dagahaley, where close to 300,000 Somalis had arrived to sites designed to house only 90,000 refugees.

The influx of those refugees from the Dadaab camp more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away came with the quickly spreading word that Saidi and his family must be Christian, since his father was a well-known Christian while living in Somalia. A Somali Bantu from Marere, Lower Juba, Saidi’s family left Marere in 2002 after strict Muslims sought to kill them when they found out they were followers of Christ.

Saidi’s late father had coordinated activities for a Christian charity in Lower Juba. Since the death of his father in 2005, Saidi has been working as a translator for a Non-Governmental Organization. As a translator, he became known to the newly arrived Somalis from Dadaab.

Because of the dangers, Saidi has been forced to abandon his job for fear of exposing himself to other Muslims who might know of his father. He is the sole supporter for his family, including his 55-year-old mother, wife and four children.

“It is not safe for us to continue living in Kakuma – we have to move away, possibly to Nairobi,” Saidi said.

As a stop-gap measure, Saidi said he hopes to work as a freelance translator, for which he would need a computer, printer, photocopying machine and laminator.

“This would be a temporary measure – asylum for my family would be a permanent solution,” he said.

Despite the relocation of the refugees from Dadaab, overcrowding has not eased due an influx of newly displaced people fleeing fighting in southern Somalia. Earlier this month, radical Islamic al Shabaab militia recaptured three key towns, including the key town of Dobhley, in Lower Juba province along Somalia’s border with Kenya. They retook control from the more moderate Isbul-Islam militants as they each try to overthrow the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government of president Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed in Mogadishu.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Evangelical archeologists skeptical about ‘Joseph coins’


Two evangelical archeologists have expressed caution in evaluating reports that ancient Egyptian coins bearing the name and image of the biblical Joseph have been discovered among unsorted artifacts at the Museum of Egypt, reports Baptist Press.

“The scholarly community will need to see the full report and images of the artifacts to make a judgment in regard to the interpretation of these objects as coins,” Steven Ortiz, associate professor of archaeology and biblical backgrounds at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said.

“It is more likely that these are amulets or jewelry. The initial reports are probably based on an initial zeal to support the koranic verses that mention coins associated with Joseph rather than a comprehensive study of the finds,” Ortiz told Baptist Press.

Al Ahram newspaper in Cairo first carried a report about the artifacts, and a subsequent report appeared in The Jerusalem Post Sept. 25, based on a translation of the original article completed by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). The research has not appeared in a scholarly journal.

The Post said the significance of the find is that archeologists have located “scientific evidence countering the claim held by some historians that coins were not used for trade in ancient Egypt, and that this was done through barter instead.”

MEMRI’s translation said the artifacts initially were believed to be charms, but a thorough examination revealed that the objects bore the year in which they were minted as well as their value.

“Some of the coins are from the time when Joseph lived in Egypt, and bear his name and portrait,” the report said. “… This [find] prompted researchers to seek and find Koranic verses that speak of coins used in ancient Egypt.”

Robert Griffin, an ancient Egyptian history scholar at the University of Memphis, noted that he couldn’t make an assessment without seeing the artifacts or scholarly reports, so he wasn’t ready to accept the discovery as it is being promoted.

“My initial response is one of skepticism in that the ‘interpretation’ of the coins is quite subjective,” Griffin told BP.

The Al Ahram article said the coins are from many different periods, “including coins that bore special markings identifying them as being from the era of Joseph. Among these, there was one coin that had an inscription on it, and an image of a cow symbolizing Pharaoh’s dream about the seven fat cows and seven lean cows ….”

“It’s a bit of a stretch, to say the least,” Griffin said, “especially when you consider that one of the most prominent goddesses in Egyptian mythology is Hathor, who is represented as a cow or a woman with cow’s horns as part of her crown.”

Hathor was popular in the late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period, circa 1800-1600 B.C., which corresponds with the general time period of Joseph, Griffin said.

Also, Al Ahram said Joseph’s name appears twice on that particular coin, written in hieroglyphics, “once the original name, Joseph, and once his Egyptian name, Saba Sabani, which was given to him by Pharaoh when he became treasurer.”

“I would be interested to see the actual writing of what the researcher claims are the names of Joseph,” Griffin said. “The English transliteration he gives for the ‘Egyptian name’ of Joseph is close in form but not exactly as it would be transliterated from the Hebrew text.”

Based on what he knows at this point, Griffin said he would hesitate to say the artifacts are definitive proof of the existence of Joseph in Egypt.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Copts Grapple with Cause of Fire at Church in Egypt


Many in congregation doubt investigators’ hasty declaration of electrical mishap.

ISTANBUL, September 18 (CDN) — The congregation of a Coptic church that was destroyed by fire last week is divided over whether it was a case of arson.

At 3 p.m. on Sept. 8, a fire broke out in the rear of the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Peter near the main entrance of the building. Located in the town of Shebin al-Kom some 37 miles (60 kilometers) northwest of Cairo, the church building along with its icons, relics and most of its furniture was destroyed.

According to local media reports, investigators said the cause of the fire was electrical. A sizable portion of the congregation, however, disputes this.

Gamal Gerges, a local reporter who works for the newspaper Al-Youm al-Sabeh, said police have no proof that the fire was accidental.

“The police say it is an electric fire – the police say it is no criminal act,” Gerges said. “The police did not have evidence, but said what they did to avoid strife between the Christians and the Muslims.”

The priest of the church has declined to comment publicly on the cause of the fire, other than repeating what investigators have said. He said he is waiting for the official report to determine the cause of the fire.

One member of the congregation, a 25-year-old woman, is not so quiet. The woman, whose name has been withheld for her protection, said that the electrical system in the church was largely unscathed by the fire. She said the damage did not radiate from the church’s fuse box.

She said she believes the fire was set intentionally but did not suggest any possible culprits.

Through an interpreter, the Rev. Antonious Wagih told Compass that relations between the Coptic and Muslim communities in the area are amicable. Media reports indicate, however, that prior to the fire local Muslims were harassing priests, and that people who lived around the church dumped dirty water on the congregants from balconies. Other reports state that local women cheered after the church burned down.

Reasons for the discrepancies between Wagih’s statements and media reports were unclear. Wagih told Compass that he “did not want to [get] into a struggle or argument with the authorities.” He added that he wanted to “avoid any dispute in this area.”

Roughly 400 families attend Saint Paul and Saint Peter. The woman who claimed the fire was arson said many congregants shared her view. Other church members were not immediately available, but other media reports also indicated that she was not alone in her opinion.

No one was injured in the fire. At press time there was no monetary estimate of damages.

The Coptic community of Shebin al-Kom used the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Peter for three years after they purchased the building from a group of Roman Catholics with a dwindling congregation.

The Shebin al-Kom fire was one of a spate of incidences reported by Coptic leaders during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Authorities in Laos Jail, Threaten to Kill Christians


Local official tells pastor to renounce faith; church member expelled, children denied schooling.

LOS ANGELES, September 11 (CDN) — Authorities in Laos last week jailed a church leader in Savannakhet Province for embracing Christianity and threatened to expel him unless he renounces his faith – and kill him if his arrest is made public, according to a human rights organization.

Officials from Liansai village, from Saybouthong sub-district and from Ad-Sapangthong district on Sept. 3 arrested Thao Oun, an elder at Boukham Church, at his home and forced him at gunpoint to the Saybounthong sub‐district office, according to Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF). The organization said the officials turned him over to the chief of police of Saybouthong sub‐district, Thao Somphet, who detained, interrogated, and terrorized the Christian for nearly six hours.

Oun was charged with bringing destruction to the Lao nation and government by embracing Christianity, which the officials consider a “foreign religion to be abhorred,” according to HRWLRF.

The chief of police demanded that Oun immediately renounce Christianity or face expulsion from the village. He “further threatened Thao Oun that if word of his arrest and interrogation get out to the international community, he will be put to death,” according to HRWLRF. The organization decided to publicize the mistreatment, a spokesman told Compass, citing international exposure as the most effective way of preventing Lao officials from carrying out threats.

The sub-district chief of police also told Oun that his harsh treatment would end “only after the death of all believers in Boukham Church,” according to HRWLRF.

To further pressure Boukham Church, Liansai village officials and security forces along with Saybouthong sub‐district police on Saturday (Sept. 5) arrested Thao Aom, who became a Christian 10 months ago. He also was interrogated and intimidated at Saybouthong sub‐district police headquarters, with authorities telling him, “You have believed in a foreign religion, so you must sign an affidavit to renounce Christianity – if you do not recant, you must vacate the village.”

HRWLRF reported that after three hours of police interrogation, Aom still refused to sign the affidavit renouncing his faith. He was expelled from the village.

He has sought refuge in a village about six kilometers (nearly four miles) away, where he had previously lived, according to HRWLRF.

On Sunday (Sept. 6) at 6 a.m., Palan district police authorities joined the officers from Saybouthong sub‐district, in Ad‐Sapangthong district, to surround the Boukham Church worship site in Saisomboon village – blocking church members from entering for Sunday morning worship.

Members of Boukham Church rotate worship sites among three locations, according to HRWLRF: in Liansai village in Saybounthong sub‐district of Ad‐Sapangthong district; in Boukham village in Ad‐Sapangthong district; and in Saisomboon village in Ad‐Sapangthong district. Elder Oun lives in Liansai village, where he leads the worship service when Boukham Church meets there.

To punish Boukham Church members for following Christ, Lao officials have denied schooling to 10 of their children and cut off access to water at village wells, according to HRWLRF. They have also deprived all area Christians of protection and rights and threatened to deny public medical care for Christians who get sick or injured.

Laos is a Communist country that is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified.

The actions against Boukham church violate the Lao Constitution as well as the 2004 Law on Criminal Procedure, the 2006 Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Children and the 2005 Penal Law, according to the organization. The officials who arrested Oun and Aom have violated Article 5 of the Law on Criminal Procedure, which prohibits the arrest, detention or building search without an order from a public prosecutor or from a people’s court, according to HRWLRF.

“Any individual who arrests, detains or conducts any search of buildings or persons in contravention of the laws shall be subject to criminal proceedings and shall be criminally liable,” the law states, according to HRWLRF.

“In addition to violating the Lao Constitution that guarantees religious rights of an individual Lao person, the arrest of Thao Oun by gunpoint was clearly an abuse of authority, and the officials should be punished for this criminal act,” HRWLRF said in a statement. “Article 154 of Penal Law stipulates, ‘Any civil servant engaging in the intentional excessive use of the authority provided by law, thereby [adversely] affecting the interests of the state or society or the rights and interests of citizens, shall be punished by three months to three years of imprisonment and shall be fined from 500,000 kip to 5 million kip [US$60 to US$600].”

The law further states that if such abuses of authority are committed with the use of force, weapons, torture, indecent words or acts affecting the honor and reputation of the victim, the offender is to be punished by three to five years of imprisonment and fined from 2 million kip to 7 million kip (US$240 to US$840).

The denial of education for school‐age children on the basis of religious affiliation violates Article 3 (5) of the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Children, the organization asserted. Article 6 further states, “All children are equal in all aspects without discrimination of any kind in respect of gender, race, ethnicity, language, beliefs, religion, physical state and socio‐economic status of their family.”

Last year officials in Boukham village detained three Christians from the church – Pastor Sombong Supatto, Boot Chanthaleuxay and Khamvan Chanthaleuxay – for several weeks before releasing them on Oct. 16. Authorities initially arrested Pastor Supatto and four others on July 20, storming their house church and ordering the 63 Christians present to cease worshiping or face prison for “believing in and worshiping God.”

Police targeted the church because it was not officially registered. Such registration comes with strict limitations on church activities, so many Christians avoid doing so.

Report from Compass Direct News 

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS BRACE FOR SHARIA IN SWAT VALLEY


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qaiser also expressed concern about the treatment of women.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Launch Point for Taliban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News

TURKEY: LINKS TO MASTERMINDS OF MURDERS IN MALATYA PURSUED


Lawyers aim to uncover size, structure of ‘deep-state’ conspiracy.

ISTANBUL, February 24 (Compass Direct News) – The identities of the middlemen linking the attackers and the alleged masterminds in the murder of three Christians in Malatya, Turkey are expected to take clearer focus following the latest hearing.

“These five troubled youths didn’t wake up one morning and decide to commit a murder – there were others directing them,” Ozkan Yucel, plaintiff attorney representing the families of the victims, told the Turkish press last week, before Friday’s (Feb. 20) hearing at the Malatya Third Criminal Court in southeastern Turkey.

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske, were tied up and stabbed to death at Zirve Publishing Co. offices on April 18, 2007. The last several hearings of the trial have supported suspicions that others were involved in the murder besides the five youths suspected of carrying out the attack. More difficult, however, is determining the scope of the murders and the organization of its conspirators.

Plaintiff attorneys have called in a heavy slate of witnesses for the next hearing, ranging from a gendarmerie commander to an Islamic theology instructor at a nearby university. Mehmet Ulger, the former gendarmerie commander of the province, and Ruhi Abat, a theology instructor at the local Inonu University, are among the 10 people expected to testify at the April 13 hearing.

According to the Radikal daily newspaper, an anonymous letter sent to Turkish churches and obtained by the media claimed Ulger acted as an instigator to the murders and directed Abat to prepare arguments against missionary activity. The letter also implicates local politician Ruhi Polat, a member of the ultra-nationalist National People’s Party and a friend of the father of alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin.

Plaintiff attorney Hafize Cobanoglu told Compass the anonymous letter played a part in the selection of Abat and Polat as witnesses.

“In this sense, paying heed to all these people is important,” she said. “However, I don’t believe they will say much when they testify.”

The call for new witnesses came two weeks after the arrest of two men suspected of acting as liaisons between the five suspects and the alleged “deep-state” masterminds of the attack.

Varol Bulent Aral, a journalist attached to a far-reaching political conspiracy known as Ergenekon, and Huseyin Yelki, a church-going, former volunteer at Zirve, were taken into custody earlier this month.

Aral, 32, has attempted to deflect blame for instigating the youths to commit the murders. He recently told a public prosecutor that the true force behind the killings was a gendarmerie intelligence unit established in the ’80s to counter Kurdish sectarian violence in the country’s southeast.

He claimed to have been approached by a member of the intelligence unit who sought his assistance. Aral said the member told him the unit would focus on three issues: missionary activity, Alevi-Sunni relations, and the Turkish-Kurd issue.

Aral claimed to have seen Gunaydin become involved with this unit, according to the daily Milliyet.

Recent court hearings, however, have produced substantial evidence that the true masterminds of the murder were members of Ergenekon, a clandestine nationalist group that sought to overthrow the current government by engineering domestic chaos.

Yelki, 34, has lived in the southern city of Adana for the nearly two years since the murder. He has had a rocky history with the leadership of Turkey’s small Protestant church, which he accused of abandoning him during difficult financial times in a series of defamatory e-mails.

He volunteered for six months at Zirve, site of the brutal torture and murder of the three Christians.

Gunaydin, the suspected ringleader of the youths accused of murder – including Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim – has claimed in previous hearings that he was offered promises of state support for killing the Christians.

In the course of Friday’s brief hearing, Ugur Yuksel’s mother, Hatice Yuksel, stood up and loudly asserted that Gunaydin had threatened her. She did not specify the nature of these threats, and court officials told her to be silent.

The next hearing for the trial is scheduled for April 13, four days before the second anniversary of the murders. Many attorneys believe the case will be fully integrated with the Ergenekon case in the upcoming months.

Report from Compass Direct News

SAUDI ARABIA: PASTOR FLEES DEATH THREATS


Religious police, others warn key figure in expatriate church to leave.

LOS ANGELES, January 30 (Compass Direct News) – A prominent foreign pastor in Saudi Arabia has fled Riyadh after a member of the mutawwa’in, or religious police, and others threatened him three times in one week.

Two of the incidents included threats to kill house church pastor Yemane Gebriel of Eritrea. On Wednesday (Jan. 28), Gebriel escaped to an undisclosed city in Saudi Arabia.

A father of eight who has lived and worked as a private driver in Saudi Arabia for 25 years, Gebriel told Compass that on Jan. 10 he found an unsigned note on his vehicle threatening to kill him if he did not leave the country. On Jan. 13, he said, mutawwa’in member Abdul Aziz and others forced him from his van and told him to leave the country.

“There was a note on my van saying, ‘If you do not leave the country, we will kill you,” Gebriel told Compass by telephone. “Three days after that, [Aziz] said, ‘You’re still working here, why don’t you go out of the country?”

Aziz, another member of the mutawwa’in and a policeman had waited for Gebriel shortly after 9 p.m. A sheikh at a Riyadh mosque, Aziz raged at Gebriel for about five minutes, accusing him of being a Christian and trying to change the religion of others, said a Christian source in Saudi Arabia.

“He finished by telling Yemane to get out of the country or ‘measures’ would be taken,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons. He said Gebriel was in genuine danger of losing his life. “In meeting with me on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 15, Yemane himself was clearly very frightened,” said the source.

That night (Jan. 15), Gebriel told Compass, four masked men – apparently Saudis – in a small car cut off the van he was driving. “They said, ‘We will kill you if you don’t go away from this place – you must leave here or we will kill you,’” he said.

Gebriel subsequently took temporary refuge in a safe house in Riyadh, and after consulting with consular officials from four embassies on Tuesday (Jan. 27), the pastor was whisked away to another city the following day.

In 2005, the religious police’s Aziz had directed that Gebriel be arrested along with 16 other foreign Christian leaders, though diplomatic pressure resulted in their release within weeks.

“No doubt Sheikh Abdul Aziz is still burning,” said the local Christian source. “Nor may such type of death threat be possibly idle words. The current situation and circumstance remind me very much of the machine-gun murder of Irish Roman Catholic layman Tony Higgins right here in Riyadh in August 2004.”

 

Raids Feared

Gebriel, 42, led a church of more than 300 foreign-born Christians, though because of work obligations only a little over 150 are able to meet regularly in his villa for Friday worship. He fled without his family, as his wife and children had managed to relocate in Egypt in August 2007.

Gebriel and three others started the house church in Riyadh 10 years ago, the local source said, and only a few months ago the pastor handed leadership over to others in the church.

“But right now the entire church is very frightened,” the source said. “They are expecting a raid one Friday shortly – just like in 2005. The congregation doesn’t even know yet that we have whisked Yemane away from them as well as from the religious police.”

In April and May of 2005, the mutawwa’in arrested 17 pastors – two Pakistanis, two Eritreans (including Gebriel), three Ethiopians and 10 Indians. None were deported after their release.

“Are there signs that 2009 might prove to be such a year again? I think so,” the source said. “Every three or four years, there is a clamp-down in Riyadh. It seems that we should expect 2009 to be a year of repression. However, the underground church here is far better placed than heretofore to manage any such persecution.”

The Saudi regime has reportedly begun to restrain the mutawwa’in, which historically has acted as a virtual vigilante force enforcing the kingdom’s Sunni Islamic social codes as volunteer agents of the semi-autonomous Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice. The U.S. Department of State’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report noted that abuses by mutawwa’in have continued.

“Mutawwa’in (religious police) continued to conduct raids of private non-Muslim religious gatherings,” the report states. “There were also charges of harassment, abuse, and killings at the hands of the mutawwa’in, or religious police. These incidents caused many non-Muslims to worship in fear of, and in such a manner as to avoid discovery by, the police and mutawwa’in.”

In the past year, mutawwa’in sometimes have not respected the Saudi policy of allowing private worship for all, including non-Muslims, according to the report. Religious police are not allowed to mete out punishment, but in the past year the Saudi government has investigated several incidents in which the mutawwa’in were accused of violating restrictions on that and other activities, according to the state department report.

The mutawwa’in still wear no uniforms, but the report notes that they are now required to wear identification badges and can act only when accompanied by police. They are authorized to monitor the practice of non-Muslim faiths, display or sale of pornography, alcohol production, distribution or consumption, and adultery, homosexuality and gambling, among other violations.

While Saudi law forbids public practice of any religion besides Islam, foreigners are generally allowed to worship privately if their congregations do not grow too large.

With the Quran and sayings of Muhammad (Sunna) as its constitution, Saudi Arabia enforces a form of sharia (Islamic law) derived from 18th-century Sunni scholar Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab that calls for the death penalty for “apostasy,” or conversion from Islam to another faith, although the state department’s report notes that there have been no confirmed reports of executions for apostasy in recent years.

Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy restricts media and other forms of public expression, though recently authorities have tolerated criticism of the mutawwa’in and the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice.

“The government-controlled press frequently criticized mutawwa’in activity,” the report adds.  

Report from Compass Direct News