Algerian Muslims Block Christmas Service


Neighborhood residents protest new church building in Kabylie region.

ISTANBUL, December 31 (CDN) — Nearly 50 Muslim members of a community in northern Algeria blocked Christians from holding a Christmas service on Saturday (Dec. 26) to protest a new church building in their neighborhood.

As Algerian Christian converts gathered for their weekly meeting and Christmas celebration that morning, they were confronted by protestors barring the doors of their church building. Tafat Church is located in Tizi-Ouzou, a city 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of the Algerian capital, Algiers. Established five years ago, the church belongs to the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). Until recently it met in a small rented building. In November it opened its doors in a new location to accommodate the growing needs of its nearly 350 congregants.

The local residents protesting were reportedly irritated at finding that a church building with many visitors from outside the area had opened near their houses, according to an El Watan report on Sunday (Dec. 27). The daily newspaper highlighted that the residents feared their youth would be lured to the church with promises of money or cell phones.

“This land is the land of Islam! Go pray somewhere else,” some of the protestors said, according to El Watan. Protestors also reportedly threatened to kill the church pastor.

The protestors stayed outside the church until Monday (Dec. 28), and that evening some of them broke into the new building and stole the church microphones and speakers, according to the pastor, Mustafa Krireche. As of yesterday (Dec. 30) the church building’s electricity was cut.

One of Algeria’s Christian leaders, Youssef Ourahmane, said he could not recall another display of such outrage from Algerians against Christians.

“It was shocking, and it was the first time to my knowledge that this happened,” said Ourahmane. “And there weren’t just a few people, but 50. That’s quite a big number … the thing that happened on Saturday was a little unusual for Algeria and for the believers as well.”

A few weeks before the Saturday incident, local residents signed a petition saying they did not want the church to operate near their homes and wanted it to be closed. Local authorities presented it to the church, but Ourahmane said the fellowship, which is legally authorized to exist under the EPA, does not plan to respond to it.

On Saturday church leaders called police, who arrived at the scene and told the Christians to go away so they could talk to the protestors, whom they did not evacuate from the premises, according to local news website Kabyles.net. The story Kabyles.net published on Sunday was entitled, “Islamic tolerance in action at Tizi-Ouzou.”

“In that area where the church is located, I’m sure the people have noticed something happening,” said Ourahmane. “Having hundreds of Christians coming to meet and different activities in the week, this is very difficult for Muslims to see happening there next door, and especially having all these Muslim converts. This is the problem.”

A local Muslim from the neighborhood explained that residents had protested construction of the church building in a residential area, according to El Watan.

“What’s happening over there is a shame and an offense to Muslims,” he told El Watan. “We found an old woman kissing a cross … they could offer money or mobile phones to students to win their sympathies and sign them up. We won’t let them exercise their faith even if they have authorization. There’s a mosque for those who want to pray to God. This is the land of Islam.” 

Behind the Scenes

Ourahmane said he believes that Islamists, and maybe even the government, were behind the protests.

“Maybe this is a new tactic they are trying to use to prevent churches from meeting,” he said. “Instead of coming by force and closing the church, the local police use the Muslim fundamentalists. That’s my analysis, anyhow.”

In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03. Authorities ordered the closure of 26 churches in the Kabylie region, both buildings and house churches, maintaining that they were not registered under the ordinance.

Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, many Christian groups indicated they were blocked by lack of information, bureaucratic processes or resistance to their applications, according to this year’s International Religious Freedom Report by the U.S. Department of State. None of the churches have closed since then, but their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the EPA.

“If we have the right to exercise our faith, let them tell us so,” Pastor Krireche told El Watan. “If the authorities want to dissolve our association through legal means, let them do so.”

Recent growth of the church in Algeria is difficult for Muslims to accept, according to Ourahmane, despite public discourse among the nation’s intellectuals advocating for religious freedoms. Unofficial estimates of Christians and Jews combined range from 12,000 to 40,000, according to the state department report. Local leaders believe the number of Algerian Christians could be as many as 65,000.

Increasing numbers of people who come from Islam are like a stab for the Muslim community, said Ourahmane.

“It’s hard for them to accept that hundreds of Christians gather to worship every week,” he said. “It’s not easy. There are no words to explain it. It’s like a knife and you see someone bleeding … They see the church as a danger to Algerian culture.”

The Algerian government has the responsibility to face up to the changing face of its country and to grant Christians the freedom to meet and worship, said Ourahmane.

“The local authorities and especially the Algerian government need to be challenged in this all the time,” he said. “They have to be challenged: ‘Don’t you recognize the situation here?’ I mean we’re talking of tens of thousands of believers, not just a few.”

There are around 64 churches in the Kabylie region, where most Algerian Christians live, as well as house groups, according to Ourahmane. The Kabylie region is populated by Berbers, an indigenous people of North Africa.

“There are lots of healings and deliverance, and people are experiencing new things in their life,” Ourahmane said of the Algerian churches. “They are finding hope in Christ which they have never experienced before.”

There are half a dozen court cases against churches and Christians. None of these have been resolved, frozen in Algeria’s courts.

False Accusations

In ongoing negative media coverage of Christians, last month Algerian newspaper Echorouk published a story claiming that the former president of the EPA, who was deported in 2008, had returned to Algeria to visit churches, give advice and give them financial aid.

The report stated that the former EPA president, Hugh Johnson, was known for his evangelism and warned readers of his evangelizing “strategies.” 

Yesterday Johnson told Compass by telephone that the report was pure fabrication, and that he has not set foot in Algeria since he was deported.

Johnson’s lawyers are still trying to appeal his case in Algerian courts.

This year church groups stated that the government denied the visa applications of some religious workers, citing the government ban on proselytizing, according to the state department report.

Report from Compass Direct News 

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Hindu Nationalist Party Official in India Charged in Nun’s Rape


Local politician of Bharatiya Janata Party had attended Christian school.

NEW DELHI, December 11 (CDN) — Police in Orissa state have arrested an official of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for allegedly leading an attack that ended in the rape of a Catholic nun during last year’s anti-Christian mayhem in Kandhamal district.

Officers in the eastern state of Orissa had been searching for Gururam Patra, identified by local residents as the general secretary of the BJP in Kandhamal district, for more than 14 months. Arrested on Saturday (Dec. 6) in Balliguda, Patra was charged with leading the attack but not with rape.

Dilip Kumar Mohanty, an investigating officer, told Compass that a non-bailable warrant had been issued against Patra, accused of being “the main organizer” of the attack on Aug. 25, 2008, in which then-28-year-old Sister Meena Lalita Barwa said she was gang-raped.

Mohanty said he had gathered “sufficient evidence” against Patra.

“He is the one who went into the house where the nun was staying and took her out, along with his associates who outraged her modesty,” Mohanty said.

Previously police had arrested 18 associates of Patra.

The Rev. Ajay Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar told Compass that Patra had become a “terror” for local Christians, as “he was threatening against [those] identifying the accused in numerous cases.”

Violence in Kandhamal took place in August-September 2008, killing more than 100 people – mostly hacked to death or burned alive – and incinerating more than 4,500 houses, as well as destroying over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions. The violence began after a VHP leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, was killed by Maoists (extreme Marxists) on Aug. 23. Hindu extremist groups wrongly blamed local Christians for the assassination.

A local Christian from K. Nuagaon village, where the nun said she was raped, told Compass on condition of anonymity that Patra was the general secretary of the BJP for Kandhamal district. But the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Hindu nationalist conglomerate Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps or RSS), were reluctant to admit association with him.

Suresh Pujari, president of the Orissa state BJP, told Compass that he did not know if Patra was a member of his party.

“I have heard his name, but I have never met him,” he said. “The BJP is a big organization, and I cannot know everyone.”

RSS spokesperson Manmohan Vaidya told Compass that Patra was a block president (a local government position) in Balliguda during the violence.

“He may have attended a few meetings of the RSS, but he was never associated with the organization officially,” he said.

Investigating officer Mohanty said police have yet to establish his affiliations, but “it appears that he was from the RSS group.” Mohanty said Patra was not accused of rape but of being the main leader of the attack.

On Nov. 11, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, told the state assembly House that 85 people from the RSS, 321 members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) and 118 workers of the Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the VHP, were rounded up by the police for the attacks in Kandhamal.

Educated by Christians

Union Catholic Asian News (UCAN) agency reported Patra attended a Catholic school, Vijaya High School, in Raikia town in Kandhamal district.

The news agency quoted the Rev. Mathew Puthyadam, principal of the school when Patra attended, as saying that he was a good student and respected the priests.

“I really wonder how he changed,” Puthyadam told UCAN.

UCAN reported that Puthyadam said right-wing Hindu groups commonly recruit people educated at Christian schools and indoctrinate them against Christians. There were a few other former students of Catholic schools who also led mobs that attacked Christians in Kandhamal, he added.

Puthyadam reportedly said that when Patra’s mother brought him to the school, she said he lost his father in early childhood and they had no money to continue his studies; the priest arranged sponsorship through a Christian aid agency to cover his fees and lodging at Bishop Tobar Hostel.

‘Police Refused to Help’

It was during the August 2008 attacks that Barwa of the Divyajyoti Pastoral Centre in K. Nuagaon area in Balliguda, said she was attacked and raped.

At an Oct. 24, 2008 press conference, the nun said 40 to 50 people attacked the house in which she and priest Thomas Chellantharayil were staying; he also was attacked in the Aug. 25 incident. She said the assailants first slapped and threatened her, then took her out of the house.

“There were three men who first threatened to throw me into the smoldering fire,” she said. “Then they threw me on the veranda [which was] full of plastic pieces. One of them tore my blouse and undergarments. While one man stood on my right hand, the other stood on my left hand and the third man raped me.”

Another man tried to rape her as she got up, she said, and when a mob arrived she was able to hide behind a staircase. But the mob pulled her out and threatened to kill her while others wanted to parade her naked in the street.

“They then beat me up with their hands,” she said. “I was made to walk on the streets wearing my petticoat and sari, as my blouse was torn by one of the attackers. When we reached the market place I saw two policemen there. I asked them to help me, but they refused.”

When the nun filed a complaint at the Balliguda police station, she said, police made no arrests until The Hindu newspaper highlighted her case on Sept. 30, 2008.

Christian leader John Dayal, a member of India’s National Integration Council, said the government has yet to fully address violence against Christians.

“The administration, civil and police, have to act with their full strength to stop the hate campaign that has been unleashed in the last one year, and which has penetrated distant villages, creating schism and hatred between communities,” he said.

On Sunday (Dec. 7) Christians and rights activists formed a new organization, the Association of Victims of Communal Violence in Kandhamal in Phulbani to deal with the growing communal divide in Kandhamal.

“The major task of the new association, working closely with clergy and civil society activists irrespective of religion, is to restore public confidence and to ensure that the victims and witnesses felt safe enough to depose in court,” said Dayal.

He said Christian leaders hope this grassroots initiative will also help in the process of reconciliation and allow people to go back to their villages, where right-wing groups are threatening them with death if they do not convert to Hinduism.

Dayal also said there were rumors of human trafficking in Kandhamal, and that the new association felt special projects for women and especially young girls were urgently required.

“I pray they remain rumors,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Anglican Communion of U.K. first to accept Pope’s offer


Members of The Traditional Anglican Church in Great Britain have announced that they will enter into communion with the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Constitution for Anglicans, reports Catholic News Agency.

According to the group’s website, members met on October 29 for their October 2009 Assembly. They scrapped their initial itinerary for the meeting following the Vatican’s Oct. 20 announcement that an Apostolic Constitution was being prepared in response to requests from groups of Anglican clergy and faithful wanting to enter into full communion with the Church. Instead, the assembly focused on what the news from the Vatican meant for the small group of Anglicans who are part of the Traditional Anglican Communion.

Anglican Bishop David Moyer released a statement describing the October Assembly as “grace-filled,” noting that everyone in attendance became “aware of the movement of the Holy Spirit.”

“The bishops, priests, ordinands, and lay representatives were brought to a place of ‘being in full accord and of one mind,’ as St. Paul prayed for the Church in Philippi,” Bishop Moyer wrote.

During the assembly, Bishop Moyer as well as Anglican Bishops John Hepworth and Robert Mercer fielded questions about the Vatican proposal before the Assembly unanimously passed resolutions written to carefully “and clearly reflect TTAC’s corporate desire and intention.”

The resolutions state that the Traditional Anglican Communion in Great Britain “offers its joyful thanks to Pope Benedict XVI for his forthcoming Apostolic Constitution allowing the corporate reunion of Anglicans with the Holy See, and requests the Primate and College of Bishops of the Traditional Anglican Communion to take the steps necessary to implement this Constitution.”

Bishop Moyer added, “All present realised that the requirement for the days ahead is patience, charity, and openness to the Holy Spirit.”

Though the Apostolic Constitution is not yet available, Cardinal William Joseph Levada, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith announced on Oct. 31 that it will be ready “by the end of the first week of November.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Lawyer Calls Turkish Christians’ Trial a ‘Scandal’


Evidence still absent in case for ‘insulting Turkishness and Islam.’

SILIVRI, Turkey, October 16 (CDN) — After three prosecution witnesses testified yesterday that they didn’t even know two Christians on trial for “insulting Turkishness and Islam,” a defense lawyer called the trial a “scandal.”

Speaking after yesterday’s hearing in the drawn-out trial, defense attorney Haydar Polat said the case’s initial acceptance by a state prosecutor in northwestern Turkey was based only on a written accusation from the local gendarmerie headquarters unaccompanied by any documentation.

“It’s a scandal,” Polat said. “It was a plot, a planned one, but a very unsuccessful plot, as there is no evidence.”

Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal were arrested in October 2006; after a two-day investigation they were charged with allegedly slandering Turkishness and Islam while talking about their faith with three young men in Silivri, an hour’s drive west of Istanbul.

Even the three prosecution witnesses who appeared to testify at Thursday’s (Oct. 15) hearing failed to produce any evidence whatsoever against Tastan and Topal, who could be jailed for up to two years if convicted on three separate charges.

Yesterday’s three witnesses, all employed as office personnel for various court departments in Istanbul, testified that they had never met or heard of the two Christians on trial. The two court employees who had requested New Testaments testified that they had initiated the request themselves.

The first witness, a bailiff in a Petty Offenses Court in Istanbul for the past 28 years, declared he did not know the defendants or anyone else in the courtroom.

But he admitted that he had responded to a newspaper ad about 10 years ago to request a free New Testament. After telephoning the number to give his address, he said, the book arrived in the mail and is still in his home.

He also said he had never heard of the church mentioned in the indictment, although he had once gone to a wedding in a church in Istanbul’s Balikpazari district, where a large Armenian Orthodox church is located.

“This is the extent of what I know about this subject,” he concluded.

Fidgeting nervously, a second witness stated, “I am not at all acquainted with the defendants, nor do I know any of these participants. I was not a witness to any one of the matters in the indictment. I just go back and forth to my work at the Istanbul State Prosecutors’ office.”

The third person to testify reiterated that he also had no acquaintance with the defendants or anyone in the courtroom. But he stated under questioning that he had entered a website on the Internet some five or six years ago that offered a free New Testament.

“I don’t know or remember the website’s name or contents,” the witness said, “but after checking the box I was asked for some of my identity details, birth date, job, cell phone – I don’t remember exactly what.”

Noting that many shops and markets asked for the same kind of information, the witness said, “I don’t see any harm in that,” adding that he would not be an open person if he tried to hide all his personal details.

For the next hearing set for Jan. 28, 2010, the court has repeated its summons to three more prosecution witnesses who failed to appear yesterday: a woman employed in Istanbul’s security police headquarters and two armed forces personnel whose whereabouts had not yet been confirmed by the population bureau.

Case ‘Demands Acquittal’

Polat said after the hearing that even though the Justice Ministry gave permission in February for the case to continue under Turkey’s controversial Article 301, a loosely-defined law that criminalizes insulting the Turkish nation, “in my opinion the documents gathered in the file demand an acquittal.”

“There is no information, no document, no details, nothing,” Polat said. “There is just a video, showing the named people together, but what they are saying cannot be heard. It was shot in an open area, not a secret place, and there is no indication it was under any pressure.”

But prosecution lawyer Murat Inan told Compass, “Of course there is evidence. That’s why the Justice Ministry continued the case. This is a large ‘orgut’ [a term connoting an illegal and armed organization], and they need to be stopped from doing this propaganda here.”

At the close of the hearing, Inan told the court that there were missing issues concerning the judicial legality and activities of the “Bible research center” linked with the defendants that needed to be examined and exposed.

Turkish press were conspicuously absent at yesterday’s hearing, and except for one representative of the Turkish Protestant churches, there were no observers present.

The first seven hearings in the trial had been mobbed by dozens of TV and print journalists, focused on ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, who led a seven-member legal team for the prosecution.

But since the January 2008 jailing of Kerincsiz and Sevgi Erenerol, who had accompanied him to all the Silivri trials, Turkish media interest in the case has dwindled. The two are alleged co-conspirators in the massive Ergenekon cabal accused of planning to overthrow the Turkish government.

This week the European Commission’s new “Turkey 2009 Progress Report” spelled out concerns about the problems of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities.

“Missionaries are widely perceived as a threat to the integrity of the country and to the Muslim religion,” the Oct. 14 report stated. “Further efforts are needed to create an environment conducive to full respect of freedom of religion in particular.”

In specific reference to Tastan and Topal’s case, the report noted: “A court case against two missionaries in Silivri continued; it was also expanded after the Ministry of Justice allowed judicial proceedings under Article 301 of the Criminal Code.”

The Turkish constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all its citizens, and the nation’s legal codes specifically protect missionary activities.

“I trust our laws on this. But psychologically, our judges and prosecutors are not ready to implement this yet,” Polat said. “They look at Christian missionaries from their own viewpoint; they aren’t able to look at them in a balanced way.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Imprisoned Christian in Somaliland on Hunger Strike


Convert from Islam jailed for allegedly distributing Christian literature.

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 16 (CDN) — A convert from Islam in Somalia’s self-declared state of Somaliland has staged a hunger strike to protest his transfer to a harsh prison in a remote part of the country.

Osman Nour Hassan was arrested on Aug. 3 for allegedly providing Christian literature in Pepsi village, on the outskirts of the breakaway region’s capital city, Hargeisa. On Sept. 9 authorities transferred him from Hargeisa to Mandere prison, 60 kilometers (37 miles) away – a difficult, week-long trip for visitors that is expensive by Somali standards.

“Hassan is in really terrible shape,” a Christian source told Compass. “He is very discouraged.”

In August the Muslims who accused Hassan met with his family, also Muslim, and agreed that Islamic teachers, or sheikhs, should go to see him in jail to advise him on Islamic doctrine. Two sheikhs met him in the police station cell and implored him to stop spreading Christianity. Hassan refused.

“His family together with the sheikhs requested the prison to make his situation more harsh, as a form of punishment, with the hope that he would recant the Christian faith and return to Islam,” said the source on condition of anonymity. “So far the family has been silent about Hassan’s situation and gives him no support.”

Promotion of any religion other than Islam in Somaliland is prohibited, contrary to international standards for religious freedom such as Article 18 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 5(1-2) of the Somaliland constitution states that Islam is the state religion and prohibits the promotion of any other faith, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report, and Article 313 outlines penalties for Muslims who change their religion.

Authorities have thwarted efforts to secure an attorney for Hassan by insisting that he cannot appeal his sentence, the source said. No Christian has ever tried to address a religious rights violation through the courts in Somaliland, he said.

“He is in need of a lawyer to help him, which seems not forthcoming,” he said. “But he cannot be allowed the right to a defense anyway. He feels neglected, so he rejected to eat food to protest the mistreatment.”

Local authorities have embarked on a crackdown of underground Christians in the predominantly Muslim area, according to three Somaliland Christians who have fled the country. Several underground Christians have either been killed, arrested or fled their homes as Islamists try to stop the clandestine distribution of Bibles, sources said.

Hassan was accused of providing Christian literature to a village Muslim boy, who later showed it to his family and friends. The boy’s Muslim family reported the incident to the police, sources said, leading to the arrest of the 29-year-old Hassan.

“His stand is that he had only one Christian material in his possession for learning purposes and not for spreading the faith,” the Christian source said. “Hassan needs a lawyer to advocate for his case, because [for someone who was once Muslim] to practice Christianity in Somaliland or another religion apart from Islam is illegal.”

In spite of his discouragement, Hassan recently said he is adhering to Christ.

“I still belong to Jesus,” he said. “I know one day I’m sure I will be released, and my physical health is okay, but psychologically I feel very anxious and stressed. Please continue praying for me.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Two Indonesian Churches Receive Bomb Threats


Islamic groups demand halt to threatened congregation’s worship.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 13 (CDN) — Two churches in the greater Jakarta area have received bomb threats.

In East Jakarta, the pastor of a Batak Protestant Christian Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) on Bogor Street received a threatening phone call before Sunday services on Oct. 4. The church building is located near the headquarters of an elite police corps.

The unknown caller to the Rev. Abidan Simanungkalit’s cell phone said the bomb would explode during the morning worship service, the pastor told Compass.

“I was startled to receive the short message,” he said. “I immediately phoned some church leaders and then called police.”

Scores of police and bomb squad officers came to the site and combed the area for a bomb, discovering a black package in a garbage container near the front of the church building. It contained four large batteries, a small wall clock and a tin can, and after a two hours police determined that it was not a bomb.

Officers speculated that the caller was unable to construct a real bomb but wanted to publicize a threat.

Pastor Simanungkalit said congregation members were alarmed over the threat and that the morning worship was uneasy.

“They were panicky and fearful,” he said. “People kept getting up to go outside and check on things.”

The church has never had problems with anyone that would lead to such a threat, the pastor added.

“Everything has been peaceful,” he said. “The close proximity of the police headquarters seemed to guarantee peace.”

Closure Sought

In north Bekasi in the Jakarta metropolitan area, a church leader of a Bethel Indonesia congregation received a similar threat the previous day, Oct. 3.

Jeffry Lalamentik said he received the threat on his cell phone, with the unknown caller also saying, “Your church will be bombed during morning worship.”

Upon receiving the threat, Lalamentik said, he contacted the Rev. Daniel Susanto, who quickly called police. A bomb squad arrived shortly after and made a thorough search, but they did not discover any explosive device.

Lalamentik said there was reason to take the threat seriously. In July a number of radical Islamic groups, including the Islamic Defenders’ Front (Front Pembela Islam), Iqra Echo and the Forum for Communication and Hospitality of the Musala Mosque (FKSMM) in Bekasi demanded that the church close.

The church meets in a private home in the midst of a housing complex.

“We are putting up a permanent church building,” Lalamentik said. “Until that is finished, we are worshipping at Pastor Daniel’s home.”

Pastor Susanto said the church had secured permission for the church building from Bekasi officials in April. The Muslim organizations, he said, have opposed the church meetings at his house, where worship has taken place since 2000.

“We normally worship at my home but occasionally move to other houses,” the pastor told Compass.

A crowd of 600 protestors from Islamic organizations have demonstrated in front of Bekasi government offices demanding a halt to the Bethel Indonesia church’s worship services, he added, and they are also fighting the establishment of the congregation’s building.

Budi Santosa of the FKSMM said that the required papers for the building permit were incomplete because the recommendation from the local Interfaith Communications Forum was missing.

The Muslim groups have met with the deputy mayor of Bekasi, Mochtar Mohammad, and the assistant leader of the Bekasi City Council, Ahmad Syiakhu, as well as several other officials. Santosa said the officials are studying the Islamic organizations’ objections to both the house church worship and its building but have taken no action.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Eritrea evangelical believers imprisoned with no sentence


For over seven years now, since May 2002, evangelical believers in Eritrea have been under persecution. Around 2800 sit in prison cells, military and labor camps, or metal shipping containers because prisons have run out of cells, reports MNN.

Aside from Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran, any Christian gathering has been deemed “illegal” there because they have not been registered. However, Paul Estabrooks with Open Doors said that on numerous occasions they have tried to register, but they have hit roadblocks or the government has not allowed them.

Sadly, the situation has only grown worse. On September 6, the Eritrean government met together to discuss the growing numbers of arrests. The numbers concerned them because it indicated that people still continue to meet and worship. In response, the government met and “called on all the citizens of the country to inform the police of any illegal gatherings of Christians in their neighborhoods,” Estabrooks said.

Naturally, this has increased fear among Christians. However, as the government suspected, the church has been growing, albeit in a limited, covert way.

Estabrooks said believers expend a lot of energy keeping their worship secret while still maintaining their witness and sharing Christ with those around them. He said the church has remained strong, but believers are still under a significant amount of pressure. He also said Satan is using every tactic he can against them, especially intimidation.

In addition to the recent government crackdown, another believer died just recently while imprisoned. Because of horrible living conditions and lack of medical attention, Mesfin Gebrekristos died of meningitis. He left behind a wife and two children. Gebrekristos is the fourth believer to die this year and the tenth since the government started imprisoning Christians.

Estabrooks asked for people to pray diligently for the non-imprisoned believers in Eritrea. Pray for their continued strength and boldness.

“We’ve been asking for prayer for those in prison, for the family members of those in prison, and even for the government that God would miraculously somehow bring them to repentance,” Estabrooks said.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Police in Pakistan Shoot Mourners at Funeral of Christian


Authorities allegedly kill young man in custody on contrived charge of desecrating Quran.

LAHORE, Pakistan, September 17 (CDN) — At a funeral for a Christian man allegedly tortured to death while in custody on a spurious charge of blaspheming the Quran, police in Sialkot, Pakistan yesterday fired on mourners trying to move the coffin to another site.

Area Christians suspect police killed 22-year-old Robert Danish, nicknamed “Fanish” or “Falish” by friends, by torturing him to death on Tuesday (Sept. 15) after the mother of his Muslim girlfriend contrived a charge against him of desecrating Islam’s scripture. The allegation led to calls from mosque loudspeakers to punish Christians, prompting an Islamic mob to attack a church building in Jathikai village on Friday (Sept. 11) and beat several of the 30 families forced to flee their homes.

Jathikai was Danish’s native village, and some family members and other Christians wished to transfer his coffin to his hometown. Eyewitnesses at the funeral in Christian Town, Sialkot, said police fired shots directly at the Christians, injuring three, when mourners began to move the coffin toward nearby Jathikai. Mourners fled.

Sialkot is 125 kilometers (78 miles) northwest of Lahore in Punjab Province.

Controversy swirled around the cause of Danish’s death, with Christians refusing to accept police claims that he committed suicide. Results of forensic tests are expected within a week.

The dark moment for Danish’s family grew gloomier yesterday when police seemed to be seeking the first excuse for heavy-handed tactics at the funeral attended by hundreds of people, Christian sources said. When the family and other Christians tried to take the coffin to his hometown of Jathikai, police fired on them, charged them with batons and snatched the body from them, Christian sources said. 

Eyewitness Sajawal Masih told Compass that as soon as mourners lifted the coffin, police began firing tear gas.

“We were running when police opened fire and one bullet went through my foot, and two others also were injured,” he said.

There were reports of Christian youths pelting officers with stones, and police reportedly said that they needed to rush the crowd and make arrests to prevent “further disturbances.”

On Tuesday night (Sept. 15), Danish’s survivors and other Christians had decided that the body would be buried in Christian Town because of the dangers of potential attack in Jathikai, according to Christian Town Councilor Tanveer Saqib. Saqib said that the funeral was to be held at 10 a.m. on Wednesday (Sept. 16) at the Christian Technical Institute (CTI) Ground in Christian Town, Sialkot city.

Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) Member of National Assembly (MNA) Akram Gill said that when he and several youths took the body from the CTI Ground and began heading toward Jathikai village, police began firing. Gill told Compass that police opened fire on them as well as the crowd, injuring three Christians.

Gill, a Christian, added that police also shot tear gas, and that officers arrested about 100 Christians. The national assembly member said police arrested him and took Danish’s body to the Christian Town Graveyard in Sialkot. In spite of the tear gas, Gill said, he and others went to the graveyard but encountered armed police who also fired tear gas, turning them back.

For three hours, Gill said, Criminal Investigation Department police detained him, and although he was released, police arrested PML-Q Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) Shehzad Elahi and his whereabouts were still unknown. He said that whenever Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) members come into power in the province, problems for Christians multiply.

Cause of Death

How Danish died remained unclear. Allama Iqbal Hospital Deputy Medical Superintendent Sajid Hussein told Compass that on Danish’s body there was a large welt on the back of the neck and “marks on the legs and back.” He said it was too soon to determine cause of death but that police had pronounced it a suicide.

Tissues taken from the body have been sent to Lahore for chemical and histopathology tests. He said these tests would indicate how the wounds were made, including whether they were inflicted after death.

“The report of these tests would come within a week, and I would inform the media of its findings,” he said. “I cannot comment on whether he committed suicide or not, as the matter is before the court.”

There were unconfirmed reports that state officials were pressuring doctors at Allama Iqbal Hospital to declare Danish’s death a suicide; Hussein denied these statements, telling Compass that they were “mere rumors.”

Hussein said that two Christian doctors, one from Bethania Hospital and the medical superintendent of Jalalpur Jattan Mission Hospital, were allowed to observe the autopsy. Christian Town Councilor Tanveer Saqib said that after the autopsy, the two Christian doctors came out and told media in front of thousands of Christians that Danish had been tortured to death.

Saqib said Danish’s father received the body and, accompanied by thousands of Christians, took it to Baithania Mission Hospital. The procession was so big that it took nearly four hours, though the route was not far.

Over the weekend Danish’s father had been unduly arrested, and upon his release a station house officer told Danish’s uncle, Saleem Masih, that even though Danish’s father was being released, Danish never would be. Saleem Masih told Compass that Danish’s father went back to his jailed son and told him, “My son, we have been trying our best to save you, but it doesn’t seem we will succeed. I think it is the last time I’m seeing you, so I commit you in the Lord’s hands.”

Councilor Saqib said that a Christian constable posted at the Sialkot District Jail told him that he saw Danish in the jail at around 7 a.m. and that he appeared unharmed. At about 10 a.m., however, jail administrators called important figures in the Christian community and told them that Danish had committed suicide, Saqib said.

Danish’s body was taken to a trauma center for a CT scan, he said, then to Riffat Idrees Hospital for an MRI.

“Along with the body were two Christian doctors – Dr. Tariq Malik and Dr. Qammar Sohail – and we were confident that they would tell the facts,” he said, adding that Malik had all medical reports of these tests.

The Punjab provincial government has ordered an investigation into the death, and three prison officials have reportedly been suspended.

Tragic Love

A paternal cousin of Danish identified only as Parveen confirmed reports that the conflict grew out of a romantic relationship between Danish and Hina Asghar, a young Muslim woman. She said Danish and Asghar were neighbors and had been seeing each other for three or four years.

On the night of Sept. 10, Parveen told Compass, Danish and Asghar met on the roof, angering the young Muslim’s mother. Early the next morning, Asghar’s mother spoke of the affair with the wife of local Muslim cleric identified only as Amanullah; the cleric’s wife in turn warned Asghar that both she and Danish could lose their lives if the relationship continued, Parveen said.

When Danish met Asghar on the road the next morning, Parveen said, the young Muslim woman refused to talk to him but tried to hand him a letter explaining the warning she had received. Upset, Danish batted her hand away as she was trying to give him the letter.

“Because he pushed her hand with a jerk, supara 21 [a section of the Quran larger than a sura, or chapter] fell from her hand and dropped onto a nearby sewage stream and got smeared with garbage,” Parveen said.

Saleem Masih, Danish’s uncle, questions that what fell from Asghar’s hand was a part of the Quran. He told Compass that Asghar was trying to give Danish a green-colored diary that only looked like the similarly green-covered section of the Quran. After the rumor began circulating that Danish had blasphemed the Quran, Saleem Masih said, Danish told his mother that it was not the Quran but a green diary that Asghar was trying to give him which fell.

According to Parveen, Asghar returned home and began cleaning the recovered scripture part, and her mother asked how it became sullied, Parveen said. Asghar’s mother subsequently rushed to cleric Amanullah’s wife, who then told her husband about the incident.

Saleem Masih told Compass that he and his wife, along with Danish’s parents, went to Hina Asghar’s father, Asghar Ali, bowed before him and pleaded for him to stop the false rumors of desecration of the Quran. He responded that Muslim cleric Amanullah would decide on it after the Friday prayers, and that the matter was not in their hands anymore.

On that day, Sept. 11, at about 11 a.m., the Muslim cleric announced during the Friday prayer that a Christian had blasphemed by desecrating the Quran, Parveen said.

Islamic mobs brandishing sticks were already arriving in the village, shouting against Danish and demanding that he be hung to death. They also occupied a house that he owned. Surrounding families fled their homes, leaving domestic animals without food and water.

Relatives Thrashed

Nadeem Masih, a paternal cousin of Danish, said that when he arrived at the village by motorbike that day, a large number of emotionally charged Muslims were setting Calvary Church on fire.

He said several Muslims had surrounded Danish’s father, Riasat Masih, and that he managed to get his uncle onto his motorbike to try to escape. They sped through several mob attempts to stop them and were eventually pursued by two Muslims on motorcycles. As Nadeem and Riasat Masih entered the main road, their motorbike slid and fell as they barely avoided an approaching truck. Nadeem Masih escaped but his uncle, Danish’s father, was captured.

Saleem Masih said that the Muslim mob took hold of Danish’s father, tied him up and were about to set him on fire when elderly men intervened, saying punishment for that crime would be too great, and suggested they instead only beat him. After beating Danish’s father, the Muslim mob untied him and took him into the church, where they burned Bibles, hymn books and other items and continued beating him.

Christian sources said police arrived and arrested Riasat Masih – not his attackers – and took him to the police station. Riasat Masih filed a crime report against the jailor and police officials at the Civil Lines Police Station, according to Christian Town Councilor Saqib.

Saleem Masih told Compass that he also was beaten. He said he was with Calvary Church Senior Pastor Dilshad Masih when they arrived in the village to find the mob setting church articles on fire and striking it with whatever they could find on hand. Realizing he could do nothing, Saleem Masih said he ran to his farmhouse, also owned by a Muslim named Bao Munir.

Munir took hold of him, he said.

“He brought out my cot and other belongings and set them on fire, and then he also tried to burn me in this fire,” Saleem Masih said.

Munir told him he could either be burned or go with him back to the village, and he forced all of the Christian’s clothes off of him except a cloth covering his loins and burned them, Saleem Masih said. After some struggle, he said, he managed to escape.

Danish, meantime, was hiding in a house in Jathikai village but was arrested the next morning (Sept. 12) when he went out for drinking water.

Tensions escalated, a source told Compass, when cleric Sabir Ali announced from his mosque in nearby Bhopalwala village that a Christian boy had blasphemed Islam by throwing the Quran in a drain.

Church Fire

After Calvary Church was set on fire, about 30 nearby families fled from the brutal beatings. Eyewitnesses told Compass that the assailants first went to Danish’s house. Not finding anyone there, they attacked the locked church which was only three houses from his.

The eyewitnesses, who were still in hiding and fearing further attacks, said that the assailants burned Bibles and hymnbooks. The assailants brought the church cross out, they said, and beat it with their shoes. The sources said the attackers were mainly from Shabab-e-Milli, a wing of the Muslim extremist Jamaat-e-Islami.

Christian Town Councilor Saqib said that the mob got hold of Calvary Church Senior Pastor Masih and severely beat him while police stood by. Police kept Saqib and his team from going to the blazing Calvary Church building, signaling them from afar not to come near, he said. He added that they had to turn back as the rampaging Muslims turned on them to attack, which police made no effort to stop. 

Pastor Masih told Compass that when he and Saleem Masih arrived at the church building, Muslims shouted at them, “Catch these Christians!” He remained standing as others fled, he said, and the mob beat him and took his mobile phone.

“They wanted to kill me, but miraculously I managed to run from there,” he said.

Saqib said MPA Kamran Michael of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PLM-N), the ruling party in Punjab province, reached the village on Friday, but police did not allow him to go to the burning church, citing security threats. About 500 Christians later gathered in Sialkot to protest the church fire, with Michael addressing the crowd.

Michael said that one of the protestors reminded him that after Islamic mobs burned homes in Gojra last month, he had vowed to resign if further attacks took place. The crowd then began demanding that he resign, and police opened fire and charged the crowd with batons. He added that throughout the incident there were several media vans, but none of the major television stations covered the protest.

Several Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Christian media also faced difficulties in getting in the village, though in all previous incidents media and NGOs were allowed access. In this case, however, police told them that they were not allowed due to security reasons. Also unable to gain access to Jathikai was Pakistan People’s Party provincial Assembly Member Amna Buttar and minority rights groups.

George and Butta Masih, along with four family members, were in Jathikai tending to their five cows on Sunday (Sept. 13). George Masih told a Compass reporter who had somehow got into the village that they stayed home all day and went out only at night to bring some fodder for the animals. They said that Muslims would beat any Christians seen during the day.

On Sunday about 500 to 700 Muslim women staged a protest in Sialkot to refute the notion that a Muslim woman could fall in love with a Christian man.

Several Christian and secular organizations in Lahore have scheduled a candle-light vigil today (Sept. 17) as a memorial for Danish and other members of Pakistan’s minority communities who have been killed or attacked in Islamist attacks.

A field officer for advocacy group Community Development Initiative, Napoleon Qayyum, said such attacks were weakening the Christian community. 

“After the Gojra incident, several Christians said that their Muslim employers had told them not to come to work anymore,” Qayyum said. “This economic dependence further plays part in seeking justice.” 

He added that in the June 30 Islamist attack on Bahmaniwala, in Kasur district, Christians did not want to pursue justice as they worked on Muslims’ land and could not afford confrontation.

“Their fear is that they would be left without jobs,” he said. “Due to economic dependence and poor status, Christians neither pursue their cases, nor do they defend themselves in such instances.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

EGYPT: TWO CLASHES SHAKE COPTIC COMMUNITY


Security forces fail to avert attacks on Christians in separate cases.

ISTANBUL, July 7 (Compass Direct News) – Separate cases of sectarian violence in two villages erupted in Egypt last week, shaking the country’s Coptic Christian community as Muslims attacked their homes and security forces imposed curfews in an effort to maintain peace.

Last Wednesday (July 1) in the village of Kafr El Barbari in Mit Ghamr, Dakahlia, north of Cairo, Muslim villagers mourning the death of 18-year-old Mohamed Ramadan Ezzat, an Al Azhar University student stabbed to death by a Coptic grocer, attacked Christian homes with stones, breaking their windows.

During post-funeral violence, 25 people were injured as hundreds of angry Muslims attacked Coptic homes. Some sources claimed that those who attacked the Christian houses were Muslims from surrounding villages. Reports varied on extent of damage to houses.

Many of the 1,000 Christian Copts who live in the village of 4,000 inhabitants fled or remained indoors out of fear that tensions may escalate. A non-profit organization that visited Kafr El Barbari on Sunday reported that it was unable to make contact with Christians.

On June 29, Ezzat had gone to the family grocery store of 50-year-old Emil Gerges to buy soft drinks. A dispute about an alleged debt Ezzat had with the store ended when Gerges’ son John, 20, stabbed the young Muslim. Ezzat died in the hospital that evening, after which his family members attacked and burned the Gerges’ store as well as two of the family apartments.

Gerges, his two sons and wife were arrested on June 29, and while his wife was released for health reasons, the men of the family remain in prison under charges of manslaughter. Security forces ordered a curfew in the village and placed a cordon around it to prohibit movement into and out of it.

Although the conflict in Kafr El Barbari was seen as a family dispute, sources say it quickly escalated into sectarian violence, heightening tensions throughout the country.

“The event could have passed as an individual fight, only there is so much tension now that if any individual fight happens between a Muslim and Christian, the whole village erupts and fights,” said Samia Sidhom, news editor of Egyptian Coptic weekly Watani.

So far there has been no official reconciliation meeting between the village’s Christians and Muslims, although leaders have met. Ezzat’s father, in a statement this week to online news agency Youm 7, said that his family has conflict only with the Gerges family and asked Christians who had fled to return to their homes. He did, however, imply that if the courts did not vindicate his son’s death, he would.

Sidhom of Watani said that overall there is an increase in sectarian tensions in the country because Islamic elements see a benefit to dissension rising.

“It destabilizes the country, and it puts security authorities at a weak point,” she said.

Other Coptic experts, however, believe that security forces have a hand in most cases of sectarian violence across the nation.

“The police are more than capable of controlling any situation if they want to,” said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of U.K.-based United Copts, of the apparent lack of control during Ezzat’s funeral. “This is deliberate I think. Some authority in the police feels that this is a time to teach Christians a lesson, to humiliate them according to sharia [Islamic law], to treat them as dhimmi, to treat them as second class citizens. If the government is serious, it is more than capable of controlling things.”

Rumors Lead to More Violence

On the heels of violence in Ezbet Boshra-East last month that left Christian villagers imprisoned and hiding in their houses on suspicion of holding a prayer meeting without permission, just five kilometers away in Ezbet Guirgis on Friday (July 3) Christians faced a similar fate.

After rumors spread among Ezbet Guirgis’s 400 Muslims that the majority Christians were planning to use a four-story building as a church, early in the morning the Muslims set fire to a warehouse adjacent to the building.

The village priest, the Rev. Saman Shehata, had applied for permission to use the building for worship last year, but authorities had rejected it.

The village’s 1,400 Coptic Christians have not used the building due to lack of official permission even though they have owned it for three years. Instead, the Christians have been using an old 35-square-meter building that has association status, allowing them to pray in it.

Shehata told Compass he believed that local police authorities who resented the application for permission to use the newer building as a church, which he filed eight months ago, spread the rumor that Copts would worship there in spite the denial of his request.

“These rumors are most likely spread by the lower ranking people from the police themselves,” Shehata said. “They incite the Muslims to show that they don’t want the building.”

The priest, who has been working in Ezbet Guirgis for 12 years, said his application for church use was rejected due to its proximity to the village’s only mosque.

The fire damaged two buildings, and Muslims also tried to burn cars belonging to the church and priest. Fire brigades arrived at the scene 90 minutes later. Shehata said that after morning prayers, when he went to file a complaint about the fires, he received a phone call informing him that Muslims were attacking Christians.

Few Christians were injured. Authorities arrested 11 Christian Copts and five Muslims in connection with the fires and ensuing violence. Security forces also placed a temporary curfew on the village of Ezbet Guirgis and are monitoring the village.

On his way to visit the Christian prisoners and to give them food today, Shehata said that security forces had detained and were trying to blame Safuat Atalla, a 28-year-old Copt, for the fires, which also destroyed some of the villagers’ stored crop harvest. Atalla used to work as the Shehata’s driver and had resigned on friendly terms after he found a better job to support his new wife and ailing parents.

Shehata, however, fears that the police may be torturing Atalla to extract a false confession that he set the fires out of anger toward the priest. Shehata said it was impossible to know how the prisoners are being treated as police have heavily supervised his visits.

“The greatest difficulty is that the prayer space is very limited, and it can only accommodate 1 percent of the Christian villagers,” said Shehata of the community’s older, smaller building. “People have to stand outside the building whenever they come for mass.”

The priest said the excuse authorities give for not allowing them to use or build a church is to maintain the village’s harmony.

“Christians are forced to pray in the street, and other villagers pass through them with their cattle, and this also leads to friction,” said Shehata. “So isn’t it better to pray within four walls than in the streets, humiliated?”

Shehata said this was the first time the two communities clashed in the village.

Priest Leaves

The case of Ezbet Guirgis is similar to that of Ezbet Boshra-East, said an Egyptian human rights expert, as in both villages violence erupted on rumors about the use of church-owned buildings.

Reconciliation meetings are expected to take place in Ezbet Guirgis soon, but the expert said it was likely that in order to maintain peace, Shehata may have to leave the village as did the Rev. Isaak Castor from Ezbet Boshra-East after last month’s clashes.

“It’s expected that Father Saman must leave, because they accepted that solution in Boshra so it will be hard to accept anything else,” said the expert.

Rumors have already started circulating that Muslims are demanding that Shehata leave.

“Father Isaac is already out of the village,” said the expert, who recently spoke with Castor. “He left before the reconciliation meeting that happened on Wednesday [July 1].”

Castor moved to Minya at the request of his superiors.

Commenting on the three cases of sectarian violence within two weeks, Habib of United Copts expressed worry about the negative role security forces have played in the events and the lack of equality for Coptic Christians seeking their rights based on the Constitution, which in theory grants them religious freedom.

“The national security force is a danger, and the police are not even-handed,” he said. “Even when it comes to court, they do not supply enough evidence, the Islamists have infiltrated the courts, and this is a bad recipe for Egypt. We are really worried about what will happen in the future to the Christians.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

EGYPT: TWO CLASHES SHAKE COPTIC COMMUNITY


Security forces fail to avert attacks on Christians in separate cases.

ISTANBUL, July 7 (Compass Direct News) – Separate cases of sectarian violence in two villages erupted in Egypt last week, shaking the country’s Coptic Christian community as Muslims attacked their homes and security forces imposed curfews in an effort to maintain peace.

Last Wednesday (July 1) in the village of Kafr El Barbari in Mit Ghamr, Dakahlia, north of Cairo, Muslim villagers mourning the death of 18-year-old Mohamed Ramadan Ezzat, an Al Azhar University student stabbed to death by a Coptic grocer, attacked Christian homes with stones, breaking their windows.

During post-funeral violence, 25 people were injured as hundreds of angry Muslims attacked Coptic homes. Some sources claimed that those who attacked the Christian houses were Muslims from surrounding villages. Reports varied on extent of damage to houses.

Many of the 1,000 Christian Copts who live in the village of 4,000 inhabitants fled or remained indoors out of fear that tensions may escalate. A non-profit organization that visited Kafr El Barbari on Sunday reported that it was unable to make contact with Christians.

On June 29, Ezzat had gone to the family grocery store of 50-year-old Emil Gerges to buy soft drinks. A dispute about an alleged debt Ezzat had with the store ended when Gerges’ son John, 20, stabbed the young Muslim. Ezzat died in the hospital that evening, after which his family members attacked and burned the Gerges’ store as well as two of the family apartments.

Gerges, his two sons and wife were arrested on June 29, and while his wife was released for health reasons, the men of the family remain in prison under charges of manslaughter. Security forces ordered a curfew in the village and placed a cordon around it to prohibit movement into and out of it.

Although the conflict in Kafr El Barbari was seen as a family dispute, sources say it quickly escalated into sectarian violence, heightening tensions throughout the country.

“The event could have passed as an individual fight, only there is so much tension now that if any individual fight happens between a Muslim and Christian, the whole village erupts and fights,” said Samia Sidhom, news editor of Egyptian Coptic weekly Watani.

So far there has been no official reconciliation meeting between the village’s Christians and Muslims, although leaders have met. Ezzat’s father, in a statement this week to online news agency Youm 7, said that his family has conflict only with the Gerges family and asked Christians who had fled to return to their homes. He did, however, imply that if the courts did not vindicate his son’s death, he would.

Sidhom of Watani said that overall there is an increase in sectarian tensions in the country because Islamic elements see a benefit to dissension rising.

“It destabilizes the country, and it puts security authorities at a weak point,” she said.

Other Coptic experts, however, believe that security forces have a hand in most cases of sectarian violence across the nation.

“The police are more than capable of controlling any situation if they want to,” said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of U.K.-based United Copts, of the apparent lack of control during Ezzat’s funeral. “This is deliberate I think. Some authority in the police feels that this is a time to teach Christians a lesson, to humiliate them according to sharia [Islamic law], to treat them as dhimmi, to treat them as second class citizens. If the government is serious, it is more than capable of controlling things.”

Rumors Lead to More Violence

On the heels of violence in Ezbet Boshra-East last month that left Christian villagers imprisoned and hiding in their houses on suspicion of holding a prayer meeting without permission, just five kilometers away in Ezbet Guirgis on Friday (July 3) Christians faced a similar fate.

After rumors spread among Ezbet Guirgis’s 400 Muslims that the majority Christians were planning to use a four-story building as a church, early in the morning the Muslims set fire to a warehouse adjacent to the building.

The village priest, the Rev. Saman Shehata, had applied for permission to use the building for worship last year, but authorities had rejected it.

The village’s 1,400 Coptic Christians have not used the building due to lack of official permission even though they have owned it for three years. Instead, the Christians have been using an old 35-square-meter building that has association status, allowing them to pray in it.

Shehata told Compass he believed that local police authorities who resented the application for permission to use the newer building as a church, which he filed eight months ago, spread the rumor that Copts would worship there in spite the denial of his request.

“These rumors are most likely spread by the lower ranking people from the police themselves,” Shehata said. “They incite the Muslims to show that they don’t want the building.”

The priest, who has been working in Ezbet Guirgis for 12 years, said his application for church use was rejected due to its proximity to the village’s only mosque.

The fire damaged two buildings, and Muslims also tried to burn cars belonging to the church and priest. Fire brigades arrived at the scene 90 minutes later. Shehata said that after morning prayers, when he went to file a complaint about the fires, he received a phone call informing him that Muslims were attacking Christians.

Few Christians were injured. Authorities arrested 11 Christian Copts and five Muslims in connection with the fires and ensuing violence. Security forces also placed a temporary curfew on the village of Ezbet Guirgis and are monitoring the village.

On his way to visit the Christian prisoners and to give them food today, Shehata said that security forces had detained and were trying to blame Safuat Atalla, a 28-year-old Copt, for the fires, which also destroyed some of the villagers’ stored crop harvest. Atalla used to work as the Shehata’s driver and had resigned on friendly terms after he found a better job to support his new wife and ailing parents.

Shehata, however, fears that the police may be torturing Atalla to extract a false confession that he set the fires out of anger toward the priest. Shehata said it was impossible to know how the prisoners are being treated as police have heavily supervised his visits.

“The greatest difficulty is that the prayer space is very limited, and it can only accommodate 1 percent of the Christian villagers,” said Shehata of the community’s older, smaller building. “People have to stand outside the building whenever they come for mass.”

The priest said the excuse authorities give for not allowing them to use or build a church is to maintain the village’s harmony.

“Christians are forced to pray in the street, and other villagers pass through them with their cattle, and this also leads to friction,” said Shehata. “So isn’t it better to pray within four walls than in the streets, humiliated?”

Shehata said this was the first time the two communities clashed in the village.

Priest Leaves

The case of Ezbet Guirgis is similar to that of Ezbet Boshra-East, said an Egyptian human rights expert, as in both villages violence erupted on rumors about the use of church-owned buildings.

Reconciliation meetings are expected to take place in Ezbet Guirgis soon, but the expert said it was likely that in order to maintain peace, Shehata may have to leave the village as did the Rev. Isaak Castor from Ezbet Boshra-East after last month’s clashes.

“It’s expected that Father Saman must leave, because they accepted that solution in Boshra so it will be hard to accept anything else,” said the expert.

Rumors have already started circulating that Muslims are demanding that Shehata leave.

“Father Isaac is already out of the village,” said the expert, who recently spoke with Castor. “He left before the reconciliation meeting that happened on Wednesday [July 1].”

Castor moved to Minya at the request of his superiors.

Commenting on the three cases of sectarian violence within two weeks, Habib of United Copts expressed worry about the negative role security forces have played in the events and the lack of equality for Coptic Christians seeking their rights based on the Constitution, which in theory grants them religious freedom.

“The national security force is a danger, and the police are not even-handed,” he said. “Even when it comes to court, they do not supply enough evidence, the Islamists have infiltrated the courts, and this is a bad recipe for Egypt. We are really worried about what will happen in the future to the Christians.”

Report from Compass Direct News