Iran Detains Christians without Legal Counsel

Half of those arrested in recent months could face apostasy charges.

ISTANBUL, January 28 (CDN) — At least 14 Christians have been detained in Iranian prisons for weeks without legal counsel in the past few months as last year’s crackdown has continued, sources said.

Three Christians remained in detention at Evin prison after authorities arrested them along with 12 others who had gathered for Christmas celebrations on Dec. 24 in a home 20 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of Iran’s capital, Tehran, according to a source who requested anonymity.

While the others were released on Jan. 4, remaining at Evin prison were Maryam Jalili, Mitra Zahmati and Farzan Matin, according to the source. Jalili is married and has two children.

Matin sounded ill in a short phone conversation this week to his family, the source said.

“Maybe he caught a cold, maybe it’s something else, but for sure they are under heavy pressure,” the source said. “They are not allowed visits from family. It doesn’t seem good.”

Security forces went to the homes of all the detainees and confiscated their books, computers and other literature, according to Farsi Christian News Network. None of the Christians have had access to legal counsel or representation.

“Normally they eventually release them,” said an Iranian source of the Dec. 24 arrests. “They never keep one person forever … but we don’t know when. We are used to living with this kind of government. Therefore we try our best and seek what God will do, and pray that they don’t keep them so long.”

The source said authorities have promised the release of the three Christians arrested Dec. 24 but have yet to let them go.

“They called their families, and they were told they would be released after bail … but then they didn’t [release them],” he said of the three Christians held in Evin.

Within days after the Dec. 24 arrest, Jalili’s sister, Mobina Jalili, and another Christian were arrested in Isfahan. The source said these two have had no contact with their families. The location and conditions of their detainment are unknown. 

Apostasy Charges

In the southwestern city of Shiraz, seven Christians were being detained as of Jan. 11, another source said, and most of them may face charges of apostasy, or leaving Islam.

Family members who have spoken with the arrested Christians said authorities have told the detainees – with the exception of one who was not born a Muslim – that they are guilty of apostasy, the source said.

The names of those detained in Shiraz are Parviz Khaladj, Mehdi Furutan, Roxana Furouyi, Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani, Abdol Reza Ali Haghnejad, Iman Farzad and one identified only as Mahyar. 

Another Christian in the northern city of Rasht, Davoot Nejatsabet, also has been arrested. And Yousef Nadarkhani, who was arrested last year on Oct. 13 in Rasht, remains in prison.

The source said the government was in crisis with so many of its citizens continuing to openly protest against it, and that this was an opportune moment to lash out against Christians.

“They see that the West is keeping quiet about Christians,” said the source. “But the Christians should mobilize about what is happening.”

Arrested Christians are regularly denied legal counsel. Often Christians are charged with other crimes, such as espionage or disrupting public order, because of their faith. The charged political climate in Iran has made it nearly impossible for Christians to find appropriate defense lawyers they can afford, a source said. Many of Iran’s human rights lawyers have either fled the country, the source said, are in prison or are otherwise unable to take up Christian cases.

Under sharia (Islamic law), apostasy is one of several “crimes” punishable by death, although Islamic court judges are not required to hand down such a sentence. No converts to Christianity have been convicted of apostasy since international pressure forced officials to drop the death sentence of Christian convert Mehdi Dibaj in 1994.

In the years following the convert’s release, however, Dibaj and four other Protestant pastors, including converts and those working with them, have been murdered. The murderers of the Christians have never been brought to justice, and government officials are suspected of playing a role in the killings.

Governmental and non-governmental agencies say that Christian converts are regularly placed under surveillance, arrested, imprisoned without due process and tortured. Muslim-born Iranians who have embraced Christianity are legally prohibited from practicing their newfound faith.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Maher El-Gohary provides requested documents, but judge dismisses them.

ISTANBUL, June 16 (Compass Direct News) – A Cairo judge on Saturday (June 13) rejected an Egyptian’s convert’s attempt to change his identification card’s religious status from Muslim to Christian, the second failed attempt to exercise constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom by a Muslim-born convert to Christianity.

For Maher El-Gohary, who has been attacked on the street, subjected to death threats and driven into hiding as a result of opening his case 10 months ago, Saturday’s outcome provided nothing in the way of consolation.

“I am disappointed with what happened and shocked with the decision, because I went to great lengths and through a great deal of hardship,” he said.

El-Gohary follows Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy as only the second Muslim-born convert in Egypt to request such a change. El-Gohary filed suit against the Ministry of the Interior for rejecting his application in August last year.

In contrast to their angry chants and threats in previous hearings, lawyers representing the government sat quietly as Judge Hamdy Yasin read his decision in a session that lasted no more than 10 minutes, according to one of El-Gohary’s lawyers, Nabil Ghobreyal.

The judge rejected El-Gohary’s application even though the convert provided a baptism certificate and a letter of acceptance into the Coptic Orthodox Church that the judge had demanded.

“The judge said he will not accept the [baptism] certificate from Cyprus or the letter from Father Matthias [Nasr Manqarious],” said Ghobreyal. “Even if he gets a letter from the pope, the judge said he would not accept it, because the remit of the church is to deal with Christians, not to deal with Muslims who convert to Christianity; this is outside their remit.”

El-Gohary sounded perplexed and frustrated as he spoke by telephone with Compass about the verdict.

“The judge asked for letters of acceptance and baptism,” he said. “It was really not easy to get them, in fact it was very hard, but if he was not going to use these things, why did he ask for them in the first place? We complied with everything and got it for him, and then it was refused. What was the point of all this?”

A full explanation of Yasin’s decision to deny the request will be published later this week. The judge’s comments on Saturday, however, provided some indication of what the report will contain.

“The judge alluded to the absence of laws pertaining to conversion from Islam to Christianity and suggested an article be drawn up to deal with this gap in legislation,” said Ghobreyal.

High Court Appeal

Such a law would be favorable to converts. Thus far, hopeful signs for converts include a recent decision to grant Baha’is the right to place a dash in the religion section of their ID cards and a High Court ruling on June 9 stating that “reverts” (Christians wishing to revert to Christianity after embracing Islam) are not in breach of law and should be allowed to re-convert.

At the age of 16 all Egyptians are required to obtain an ID that states their religion as Muslim, Christian or Jewish. These cards are necessary for virtually every aspect of life, from banking, to education and medical treatment.

No Egyptian clergyman has issued a baptismal certificate to a convert, but El-Gohary was able to travel to Cyprus to get a baptismal certificate from a well-established church. In April the Coptic, Cairo-based Manqarious recognized this certificate and issued him a letter of acceptance, or “conversion certificate,” welcoming him to the Coptic Orthodox community.

El-Gohary’s baptismal certificate caused a fury among the nation’s Islamic lobby, as it led to the first official church recognition of a convert. A number of fatwas (religious edicts) have since been issued against El-Gohary and Manqarious.

El-Gohary’s case could go before the High Court, his lawyer said.

“This is not the end; this is just the beginning,” said Ghobreyal. “I am going to a higher court, I have ideas and I am going to fight all the way through. It’s a long road.”

Ghobreyal’s tenacious attitude is matched by his client’s.

“I am going to persevere, I will not give up,” said El-Gohary. “Appealing is the next step and I am ready for the steps after that. I am going to bring this to the attention of the whole world.”

The judge had received a report from the State Council, a consultative body of Egypt’s Administrative Court, which expressed outrage at El-Gohary’s “audacity” to request a change in the religious designation on his ID. The report claimed that his case was a threat to societal order and violated sharia (Islamic law).

El-Gohary’s lawyers noted that the report is not based on Egypt’s civil law, nor does it uphold the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights that Egypt has signed. It stated that those who leave Islam, “apostates” such as El-Gohary, should be subject to the death sentence.

Report from Compass Direct News


Key move in former Muslim’s bid to legally convert comes as Islamist outcry peaks.

ISTANBUL, April 14 (Compass Direct News) – In a bold move, Egypt’s Coptic Church has issued its first-ever certificate of conversion to a former Muslim, supporting his petition to have his national identification card denote his Christian faith.

Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary’s request to legally convert is only the second case in Egypt of a Muslim-born citizen trying to change his religious affiliation to Christianity on identification documents. Lawyers presented the Coptic Church’s conversion certificate to a court clerk on Saturday (April 11).

“We know that the judge has seen the certificate, but we have no indication whether it is acceptable or not,” said Nabil Ghobreyal, one of three lawyers representing El-Gohary. “We will have to wait until May 2 to find out the final verdict.”

Reluctance to expose itself to possible retaliation from either the government or Islamic extremists has kept the Coptic Church from openly admitting to baptizing and welcoming converts until now.

There is indeed reason to fear reprisal.

“Intimidation from the Islamic lawyers is severe,” said El-Gohary in a recent interview. “They were chanting in the court, ‘No god but Allah,’ and they were threatening intensely.”

Despite efforts to maintain the secrecy of El-Gohary’s whereabouts, he has received written death threats on more than one occasion since appearing in court on April 4 to register an official statement.

Since the certificate was issued, some bloggers have used strong and abusive language to support Islamist lawyers Mustafa El-Alshak’a, Hamid Sadiq and Youssef El-Badri in their threats against El-Gohary’s lawyers and the priest that issued the certificate, Father Matthias Nasr Manqarious.

As the representative of a community already heavily persecuted, the Coptic Church is in a precarious position. Despite the risks, however, it endorsed the certificate issued by Fr. Manqarious. Bishop Marcos of Shubra El-Kheima declared that the church cannot turn down a fellow believer who is looking for acceptance into the Christian community.

Whether the conversion certificate will turn out to be the final piece of the puzzle that opens the door for El-Gohary to officially convert remains to be seen.

Gamal Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, who represents Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, the first Muslim-born Egyptian to request a legal conversion, is no stranger to the pitfalls of such a case.

“We support freedom of thought, but we believe also that the government and the court will try to stop this, because if the door is open there will be huge numbers following,” Eid said.

El-Gohary characterized the judge’s request for the document as laying the onus for legal conversion on the church, describing it as “an excuse to wiggle out of making a decision.”

His lawyer, Ghobreyal, said he hopes that Judge Hamdy Yasin will allow El-Gohary to change his religious status now that the certificate has been issued.

For El-Gohary, threats from Islamic fundamentalist elements are now the foremost issue.

“I do not leave the house – my life is in real danger and my daughter is in real danger,” said El-Gohary. “The pressure is too much. I am thinking seriously that I should leave Egypt.”

El-Gohary and his lawyers are now calling for protection from both national security forces and the international community.

Report from Compass Direct News


Bail granted to convert from Islam barred from legally changing religious ID.

ISTANBUL, January 27 (Compass Direct News) – After her arrest at Cairo’s airport on Dec. 13 while attempting to flee anti-Christian hostilities in Egypt, convert Martha Samuel Makkar was granted bail on Saturday (Jan. 24), but not before a judge took her aside and said he would like to kill her, according to her lawyer.

Attorney Nadia Tawfiq said Judge Abdelaa Hashem questioned Makkar extensively about her Christian faith during the hearing. Makkar, charged with forging identification documents, explained her reasons for her conversion, avowing her Christian faith and repudiating the judge’s claims that converting from Islam to Christianity was impossible.

“Then he said, ‘I want to talk with Martha alone,’ so we all left the room, and he said to her, ‘Nobody changes from Muslim to Christian – you are a Muslim,’” Tawfiq said. “And she said, ‘No, I am a Christian.’ He told her, ‘If I had a knife now, I would kill you.’ [Makkar] came out crying and depressed, but at least he gave the decision to let her go free.”

Makkar, 24, had planned to escape the dangers she has faced in Egypt by travelling to Russia with her family. She says that since converting to Christianity five years ago, police and members of her extended family have threatened her incessantly, the relatives vowing to kill her.

Airport security personnel had been notified of Makkar’s plans, according to a Coptic rights group.

“They had both [her original and Christian] names and maybe a picture before she reached the airport,” said Helmy Guirguis, president of the UK Coptic Association. “They did not [arrest her] to apply the law, they did it because of hate for Muslims converting to Christianity. It is like a great occasion to go and arrest some poor lady like her in the airport.”

After her arrest, Makkar was charged with carrying forged documents and taken to El-Nozha police station. Authorities also took her husband and two children into custody. The identification that Makkar carried listed her religion as Christian and bore the name she had chosen for herself rather than her given name, Zainab Said Abdel-Aziz.

Legal conversion from Islam to Christianity by Muslim-born Egyptians, and gaining corresponding legitimate documents, is unprecedented in Egypt. Egyptian law does not provide for a means to legally change one’s religion on identification papers.

According to Tawfiq, Makkar said authorities held her in a room at the airport, hit her and denied food to her children.

“People who convert to Christianity are treated exactly like terrorists,” said Guirguis of the UK Coptic Association. “This is not official policy, it’s not on paper, it’s not the law, but it’s what happens.”


Abuse from Police, Prisoners

Before authorities took Makkar to prison, her two children, Morkes, 2, and Amanwael, 4, were handed into the care of family friends. Authorities took Makkar’s Christian husband, 32-year-old Fadl Thabet, to the national security office in Alexandria for questioning.

The prosecution office later ordered his release after testimony from Makkar, who claimed that Thabet did not know she was a convert. Despite this order, authorities did not release Thabet but instead placed him under “emergency arrest.” This form of incarceration requires no charges and provides no recourse to legal counsel. He remained in prison until Jan. 19.

Authorities had also arrested George Abyad, 67, and Masood Guirges, 55, employees of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in Alexandria, on suspicion of helping Makkar obtain false papers. The prosecution office ordered their release along with that of Thabet based on Makkar’s testimony.

Since Makkar’s arrest, she has leveled allegations of sexual abuse and demeaning behavior at police in the El-Nozha station and at personnel of the national security office in Heliopolis. Makkar said she has also suffered at the hands of fellow inmates at Al-Qanata prison, where authorities later took her.

“She has some difficulty with the other prisoners in prison,” said Tawfiq. “One of them kicked her and tried to kill her; one took the Bible and threw it on the floor, pushed her and tried to make her go back to Islam. But she is strong, she is strong.”

Makkar remained in pre-trial detention until Thursday (Jan. 22), when she was briefly released on a bail of 3,000 Egyptian pounds (US$540). She was then rearrested after prosecutors filed an appeal. The appeal failed, and on Saturday (Jan. 24) Makkar was allowed to return home to her husband and children pending trial.

Tawfiq and two other lawyers, Nabil Azmi and Magdy Shounda, will represent Makkar when her trial resumes before a different judge. Tawfiq, however, is not hopeful that they will face any less of a bias.

“I think it will be the same, because all the judges are Muslim and are naturally upset about that [conversion],” she said.  

Report from Compass Direct News