Church Wins Legal Battle to Worship in Building


Court in West Java rescinds mayor’s order revoking permit.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 29 (CDN) — Christians have won a court battle restoring the right to worship in their building in Depok City, West Java.

Depok Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail on March 27 had revoked the building permit for a multipurpose building and house of worship for Gereja Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church following protests by Muslims. A court in Bandung on Sept. 17 rescinded the order that revoked the church building permit, paving the way for congregants to resume worship there.

Head Judge A. Syaifullah read the decision of the three-judge panel, which found the mayor’s reasoning for canceling the building permit inadequate. The mayor had said that most people living near the church objected to its building in Jalan Pesanggrahan IV, Cinere Area of Depok City.

“These objections by the local residents should have been raised when the building permit was going through the approval process, not protesting afterwards,” said Syaifullah.

Syaifullah added that the mayor also should have taken the views of church members into consideration.

“In this case, the revocation of the building permit was based upon the objections of one group in the community without considering those from the church,” he said.

Construction of the church building had begun in 1998, shortly after the permit was issued, but halted soon afterward due to a lack of funds.

When the project began anew in 2007, members of a Muslim group from the Cinere Area of Depok City and neighboring villages damaged the boundary hedge and posted protest banners on the walls of the building. Most of the protestors were not local residents.

The court determined that lawyers for the church successfully demonstrated that church leaders had followed all Depok City procedures for the building permit. Betty Sitompul, vice-chair of the HKBP church building committee, stated that the church court win was a victory for all Christians.

“We won because we had followed all the procedures and had completed all the required documents,” she said.

In early June the church had filed suit against the mayor’s action in a provincial court in Bandung, with church lawyer Junimart Girsang arguing that the mayor’s revocation of the permit was wrong.

Girsang said that the court had finally sided with justice for all Indonesians.

“The judges made the right decision and had no choice, because all of the papers for the permit were done properly,” he said.

The church had been meeting in a naval facility located about five kilometers (nearly three miles) from the church building since the permit was revoked, causing great inconvenience for church members, many of whom did not have their own transportation.

In South Sumatra Province, another HKBP church outside the provincial capital city of Palembang is trying to overcome objections by Muslim protestors in order to complete construction of its building in Plaju.  

Church leaders acknowledge they had not finished the application process for a permit before beginning construction. They said they went forward because after they applied to the mayor of Palembang, he told them to talk with the governor of South Sumatra. After talking with Gov. Alex Noerdin and securing his approval on Feb. 10, church leaders began construction on a donated plot of 1,500 square meters only to face a demonstration by members of several Muslim organizations on June 27.

The South Sumatra Muslim Forum (FUI Sumsel) organized the demonstration. Carrying a copy of a mayoral decree dated May 2009 ordering a halt to construction, the protestors gathered outside the building site, listened to speeches and then destroyed a bridge leading to it before demanding that the government ban the building project.

Applications for church permits are often fraught with difficulty in Indonesia, leaving many congregations no choice but to worship in private homes, hotels or rented conference facilities. Such gatherings leave churches open to threats and intimidation from activist groups such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front), in recent years responsible for the closure of many unregistered churches.

Report from Compass Direct News 

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Muslims in Bangladesh Seize Land Used by Church


Bengali-speaking settlers file case against Christians; one threatens, ‘I will finish your life.’

DHAKA, Bangladesh, September 1 (CDN) — Bengali-speaking, Muslim settlers have seized five acres of abandoned government property used by a church and falsedly charged Christians with damaging the land in southeastern Bangladesh’s Khagrachari hill district, Christian leaders said.

Kiron Joti Chakma, field director of Grace Baptist Church in Khagrachari district, told Compass that the settlers had taken over the church building and the five acres of land in Reservechara village in June and filed a case on Aug. 4 against five tribal Christians. The Bengali-speaking Muslims had come from other areas of Bangladesh in a government resettlement program that began in 1980.

“In the case, the settlers mentioned that the Christians had cut the trees and damaged the crops on their land and that they should pay 250,000 taka [US$3,690] as compensation,” said Chakma. “We cultivated pineapple in the land around the church. But the settlers damaged all of our pineapple trees and built two houses there.”

The government has allowed the Christians to use the land. Tribal leaders said that land-grabbing in the area hill tracts, undulating landscape under Dighinala police jurisdiction 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of the Dhaka, began again during the army-backed interim government of 2007-2008.

“It is still continuing, and our demands to stop land-grabbing do not rate very high with the administration and law enforcement agencies,” said one of the accused, 32-year-old Mintu Chakma.

When he went to the police station regarding the false case filed against the Christians, he said, the leader of the Bengali settlers was there and threatened him in front of officers, telling him, “I can devour dozens of people like you – I will finish your life.”

Church leaders have informed a nearby army camp of the seizure. Military officers said they would take action, but they have done nothing so far, Christians said.

“Our leaders informed the army zone commander, and he assured us they would take necessary action, but nothing has happened so far against those land grabbers and arsonists,” said 25-year-old Liton Chakma (Chakma is the name of the tribe), one of the Christians accused in the Grace Baptist case.

The Muslim settlers had burned a Seventh-day Adventist Church building in 2008 in Boachara village, close to the Grace Baptist Christians’ village, in an effort to frighten tribal people away from becoming Christian, said Liton Chakma. He told Compass that Bengali settlers had also hindered their attempt to construct the church building in August in 2007.

“Many new believers saw nothing had happened to the arsonists, and many of them reverted to their previous Buddhism,” he said. “The army and local administration allowed them to run wild. They always threaten to beat us and file cases against us.”

Mintu Chakma said that Muslim settlers seized a garden next to his house in 2007.

“They not only destroyed my pineapple garden, but they built a mosque there,” he said.

Land Ownership

Local police inspector Suvas Pal told Compass that neither tribal people nor Bengali settlers were the owners of that land. It is government-owned, abandoned land, he said.

“The Bengali settlers claim that the land was assigned to lease to them, but we did not find any copy of lease in the deputy commissioner’s office,” said Pal. “On the other hand, the tribal people could not show any papers of their possession of the land.”

Investigating Officer Omar Faruque told Compass that the Muslim settlers had built two houses there, though they did not live there or nearby.

“I told the Bengali settlers that if they [tribal Christians] worship in the church there, then do not disturb them,” said Faruque.

Dipankar Dewan, headman of the tribal community, told Compass that the tribal Christians have an historical claim to the land.

“The land belonged to the forefathers of tribal Christians, so they can lay claim to the property by inheritance,” said Dewan.

During conflict between tribal people and Bengali people in the hill tracts, the tribal people left the country and took shelter in neighboring India, leaving much of their land abandoned. Bengali settlers took over some of the land, while the government leased other tracts to Bengali settlers, Dewan said.

“Many lands of the tribal people were grabbed in the hill tracts in the two years of state-of-emergency period of the previous army-backed, interim government,” he said. “Those Bengali settlers tried to grab the land during the tenure of the army-backed, interim government.”

Members of the Shanti Bahini, tribal guerrillas who fought for autonomy in the hill tracts, ended a 25-years revolt in the Chittagong Hill Tracts area in 1997 under a peace treaty in which the government was to withdraw troops and restore land acquired by settlers to local tribesmen.

Some 2,000 Shanti Bahini guerrillas surrendered their weapons following the 1997 treaty. But the tribal people say many aspects of the treaty remain unfulfilled, including restoration of rights and assigning jobs to them.

The guerrillas had fought for autonomy in the hill and forest region bordering India and Burma (Myanmar) in a campaign that left nearly 8,500 troops, rebels and civilians killed.

Recently the Awami League government ordered one army brigade of nearly 2,500 troops to pull out from the hill tract, and the withdrawal that began early last month is expected to be completed soon. Four brigades of army are still deployed in the hill tracts comprising three districts – Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban.

Report from Compass Direct News 

TURKEY: CHRISTIAN MURDERED ON BUSY STREET IN ISTANBUL


Mentally disturbed Muslim stabs German businessman as he leaves church.

ISTANBUL, July 28 (Compass Direct News) – On a crowded street here last week a German businessman died after a Turk with a history of mental problems stabbed him for being a Christian.

Witnesses saw Ýbrahim Akyol, 26, stab Gregor Kerkeling in the chest on July 20 at 10:50 a.m. after following him out of St. Anthony Catholic Church in Istanbul’s central district of Beyoglu. Church security cameras captured the attack on Kerkeling, who regularly visited the church when he was in town for business.

Kerkeling, in his early forties, had just visited the church to pray that morning. Akyol, a Muslim who reportedly had been visiting area churches scouting around for a Christian victim, followed Kerkeling out of the church building and asked him for a Turkish lira. When Kerkeling refused and gestured him away, Akyol repeatedly stabbed him in the heart and chest area before passersby intervened. According to various news reports, an ambulance did not arrive in time to save Kerkeling’s life.

In a statement to the prosecutor, Akyol reportedly confessed that he woke up that morning and decided he would kill a Christian. He took a kitchen knife with him and went to Istiklal Street, a long pedestrian and commercial road where some of the main traditional churches are located, looking for a victim.

“I wanted to kill a Christian that day and was visiting churches for this reason,” he told prosecutors, according to the Hurriet Daily News. “I saw the person and killed him.”

Akyol, according to various Turkish papers, was addicted to paint thinner. They also reported he had received treatment at a well-known mental hospital in Istanbul but did not give details of his state of mind.

Earlier that morning at St. Anthony church, one of Turkey’s best known and visible churches, at around 9:30 a.m. Akyol tried to pick a fight with a door guard by refusing to take off his cap, saying he couldn’t remove it because he was a Muslim.

In his confession to the prosecutor, Akyol said he looked into the eyes of the door guard and tried to decide whether to kill him, reported the daily Sabah. The guard had asked him to come out of the church with him, and Akyol followed him to the front steps where he attempted to open a debate about Islam and Christianity.

In the end, he reportedly said he decided not to kill the guard because “there was no light in his eyes.”

After his conversation with the guard, Akyol took his knife to a knife store and had it sharpened, according to police.

A member of St. Anthony church said that the community was upset.

“The community was a little bit shaken by what happened,” said the church member. “We realize that we are vulnerable, and that we must rely on God for our security. It is easy to be affected by fear when the motives and circumstances for this event are completely unclear.”

The church has hundreds and often thousands of visitors daily, and it is the first church that many Turks curious about Christianity visit.

Since 2006, five Christian men have been killed in Turkey because of their beliefs. The murders have been committed by men in their early twenties who said they were motivated by religious and nationalistic beliefs allegedly fanned by official elements and other influential figures said to be plotting to destabilize Turkey.

Media reported that according to police, Akyol carried a photo of the founder of the modern nation, Kemal Ataturk. On the back of the photo he had written: “I love my homeland. Those who disagree with my thoughts or don’t like them can get out of my country.”

Although last week’s murder does not seem to be related to the previous ones, St. Anthony’s community members are aware that their visibility could make them an easy target to those wanting to attack Christians or foreigners.

“St. Anthony’s would be an easy target for someone who would want to lash out at Christians, or even at foreigners, because often people view the church as a foreign institution,” said a member of the parish on the condition of anonymity.

The St. Anthony member asked for prayer that the community will “not be controlled by a spirit of fear, but continue to live out our very simple testimony with His incredible joy.”

Man of Prayer

In an interview with the daily Vatan, Kerkeling’s fiancée, Hatice Isik, said he was quite “religious” and prayed every day.

“First thing every morning, he would go to St. Anthony church in Taksim and pray,” she said, according to Vatan. “Sometimes we went together.”

Kerkeling was on his way to meet Isik at an area café after his prayers when he was stabbed. She and Kerkeling were planning on getting married in a few months.

Kerkeling’s body was sent to Germany on Friday (July 24).

Report from Compass Direct News 

IRAN: AUTHORITIES PRESSURE FATHER OF CONVERT


Government trying to quell Christian son’s human rights activities.

LOS ANGELES, May 20 (Compass Direct News) – In an attempt to silence a Christian human rights activist living in England, Iranian authorities arrested and interrogated his Muslim father for six days before releasing him yesterday .

Abdul Zahra Vashahi, a retired 62-year-old suffering a heart condition, was arrested on Thursday (May 14) in Iran’s southwestern city of Bandar Mahshahr and interrogated about the human rights activities of his son, a Christian convert who has been living in England since 2003. His son, John (Reza) Vashahi, converted to Christianity while in England and in 2008 founded the Iranian Minorities Human Rights Organization (IMHRO).

In February the elder Vashahi had received a call from local authorities telling him that if his son didn’t stop his activities, they would arrest him instead.

While his father was in custody, authorities asked the elder Vashahi many questions about his son’s activities and had him fill out forms with detailed information about his extended family and friends.

“He is very tired, because the interrogations were very long,” his son told Compass. “All the questions were about me.”

The younger Vashahi said the Iranian government started putting increased pressure on his family, whom he has not seen in six years, since he founded IMHRO.

“It is a good example of harassment even outside the country,” Vashahi told Compass by telephone today. “It is just showing how far the government will go if we let them. Inside we can’t talk, and we come to Europe and still they want to silence us; it’s a very worrying sign.”

Vashahi, unlike his father, was involved in politics when he lived in Iran. His family belongs to Iran’s Arab-speaking community, the Ahwazi, most of whom live in the southwestern province of Khuzestan.

He said that even when he was living there, police had come to his father’s workplace to ask him questions, but that after he fled the country six years ago, the pressure seemed to have stopped. It began anew when he became an outspoken Christian campaigning for the rights of minorities in Iran and especially with the establishment of IMHRO, he said.

The activist is an active member of Amnesty International, and through his own organization he publicizes Iran’s human rights violations of minorities, especially Christians. He has also started a blog called “Jesus for Arabs.”

Fighting for Minority Rights

Vashahi acknowledged that his family, which is Muslim, was never happy with his choice of faith or vocation.

Asked whether he believed the government arrested his father because of his faith or his work, the younger Vashahi said, “I think it’s both, because part of my human rights activity is in regard to Christians in Iran, and we’ve been in touch with Christians and persecuted churches.”

The 30-year-old activist said that when the Revolutionary Guard arrested his father, they confiscated all of his books and compact discs, as well as a computer and his sister’s university dentistry textbooks.

“It’s a bad situation, and I hope we find some solution,” Vashahi said, “No one has the right to talk about anything in Iran. Suppression of the church is increasing in Iran; they don’t want us to talk about that. They don’t want us to talk about it inside, and also they want to silence us outside.”

Vashahi said that despite the government pressure, he is not planning to stop his human rights activism.

“I’m not going to be silent, because if I do, then I’m accepting their logic, which means I caused the arrest of my dad,” Vashahi said. “My dad is innocent, and that system is wrong to arrest someone instead of somebody else.”

In 2008, when deciding to establish the IMHRO, he said he felt torn between confronting Iran’s injustices and wanting to ignore them from his comfortable, safe distance.

“Another part of me was saying, ‘you are safe now, but you should do your fair share, you should make noise, and if people inside can’t talk and you are outside and you don’t want to talk, how will people learn what is happening?’” he said. “I felt responsibility, and in the end that part won.”

In a phone conversation with his mother yesterday while his father was sleeping to recover from his time in prison, he said he felt that she was choosing her words very carefully. She told him not to contact them or other family and friends.

“She emphasized that we are all Muslims, and that this is an Islamic country,” Vashahi said. “So she was giving me hints that it [the arrest] had to do with the change of religion.”

Although there were no official charges against his father, Vashahi said it is possible that authorities still could take him to court or detain him again for more interrogation.

“I hope this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “In fact, they’ve taken my family as hostage. They did this type of policy to other people and they’ve always failed, and I don’t know why they keep doing it, because people like me they are not going to stop. Others didn’t stop, and they’re just bringing more condemnation on themselves and exposing themselves to more condemnation in the eyes of the world.”

New Wave of Arrests

Compass has learned of four confirmed arrests of Christians in the last two weeks in the capital city of Tehran, while sources said a new wave of arrests has rolled across the country.

Authorities have been warning arrested Christians not to speak to foreign news agencies.

“The government is treating people like they don’t want them to talk,” said a source. “The government is really afraid of international news agencies, they really don’t like them. That is why they put pressure on the believers, and they are really scared.”

Although in most cases of arrests and interrogations Christians have been released with no physical harm, a source said in some instances they were told to sign papers that they would stop Christian activities and were threatened if they continued.

“It’s happening everywhere,” said the source. “This is the strategy of the government. They are doing it everywhere.”

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, are in their second month of detention at the notorious Evin prison house in Tehran, accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings.”

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: CONVERT’S RELIGIOUS RIGHTS CASE THREATENS ISLAMISTS


Muslims said to fear that freedom to legally change religion would wreak societal havoc.

CAIRO, Egypt, May 12 (Compass Direct News) – In the dilapidated office here of three lawyers representing one of Egypt’s “most wanted” Christian converts, the mood was hopeful in spite of a barrage of death threats against them and their client.

At a court hearing on May 2, a judge agreed to a request by the convert from Islam to join the two cases he has opened to change his ID card to reflect his new faith. The court set June 13 as the date to rule on the case of Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary’s – who is in hiding from outraged Islamists – and lawyer Nabil Ghobreyal said he was hopeful that progress thus far will lead to a favorable ruling.

At the same time, El-Gohary’s lawyers termed potentially “catastrophic” for Egyptian human rights a report sent to the judge by the State Council, a consultative body of Egypt’s Administrative Court. Expressing outrage at El-Gohary’s “audacity” to request a change in the religious designation on his ID, the report claims the case is a threat to societal order and violates sharia (Islamic law).

“This [report] is bombarding freedom of religion in Egypt,” said lawyer Said Faiz. “They are insisting that the path to Islam is a one-way street. The entire report is based on sharia.”

The report is counterproductive for Egypt’s aspirations for improved human rights, they said. In the eyes of the international community it is self-condemned, the lawyers said, because it is not based on Egypt’s civil law, nor does it uphold the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights that Egypt has signed.

The report stated that those who leave Islam will be subject to death, described El-Gohary as an “apostate” and called all Christians “infidels.”

“During the hearing, they [Islamic lawyers] were saying that Christians are infidels and that Christ was a Muslim, so we said, ‘OK, bring us the papers that show Jesus embraced Islam,’” Faiz said, to a round of laughter from his colleagues.

Ghobreyal, adding that the report says El-Gohary’s case threatens public order, noted wryly, “In Egypt we have freedom of religion, but these freedoms can’t go against Islam.”

The trio of young lawyers working on El-Gohary’s case, who formed an organization called Nuri Shams (Sunlight) to support Christian converts’ rights, said they have received innumerable threats over the phone and on the Internet, and sometimes even from their colleagues.

Churches Challenged

To date no Christian convert in Egypt has obtained a baptismal certificate, which amounts to official proof of conversion.

Churches fear that issuing such certificates would create a severe backlash. As a result, converts cannot apply for a change of religion on their ID, but El-Gohary was able to travel abroad to get a baptismal certificate from a well-established church. In April a Coptic Cairo-based priest 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 Father Matthias Nasr Manqarious, the priest who helped him.

“The converts have no chance to travel, to leave, to get asylum, so we have to help them to get documents for their new religion,” Fr. Manqarious told Compass by telephone. “So I decided to help Maher El-Gohary and others like him. They can’t live as Christians in broad daylight.”

For several months El-Gohary has been in hiding, relying on others to meet his basic needs. When Compass spoke with him by phone earlier this month, he said he lives in fear for his life and worries about his 14-year-old daughter’s safety.

“I’m hiding. Someone brings me my food and water. I haven’t gone out in a week,” said El-Gohary. “Many Muslims and sheikhs … say if anyone sees Maher Gohary, he must kill him. My life is very difficult.”

His original case, filed in August of last year, included an attempt to change the religious affiliation on his teenage daughter’s ID, but he later dropped it after further legal consultation. El-Gohary said that when radical Muslims recognize his daughter on the streets, they warn her that they will kill her father when they find him.

“She’s afraid for me,” he said.

His church acceptance letter has re-kindled discussion of a bill proposed by parliamentary members affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a hard-line Islamist opposition movement, which would make apostasy punishable by death, said El-Gohary’s lawyers. Human rights experts, however, say that such a bill does not stand a chance in the Egyptian Parliament and is primarily a smokescreen to induce fear in Egypt’s Christian converts from Islam.

Some Hope from Baha’is

Sources said the fact that the judge asked for a baptismal certificate and filed the letter of acceptance in the case represents progress in the ongoing struggle of Egyptian converts, who are not recognized in their own country.

Now that El-Gohary’s lawyers have produced the acceptance letter, the judge in the case finds himself in a bind, said Hassan Ismail, general secretary of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations.

“The judge is in a paradox with the document he asked for,” Ismail said. “It is difficult to accept it, and yet it is difficult having this document among those of the case.”

Ismail, who has worked for years defending the rights of both Baha’is and converts, said it is hard to predict what the judge will decide in June. Even with all the required documents and “proof” of El-Gohary’s conversion, he said, the judge may still deny his right to change religions.

“For us human rights activists, these decisions are political, not legal,” he said. “These sorts of documents put the government into a corner, and we are working hard to get them in order to push the government to make different decisions.”

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.

Baha’is, who do not fall under the rubric of any of Islam’s “heavenly religions,” were forced to lie about their religion or not obtain cards until March, when in a historical decision Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld a lower court’s 2008 ruling that all Egyptians have a right to obtain official documents, such as ID cards and birth certificates, without stating their religion.

The gains of Baha’is have been a gauge of sorts for the Christian convert community, even though in reality they are not granted the freedom to change their stated religion or leave it blank on their cards and the official registry.

“I’m very optimistic about the cases of minorities and converts in Egypt,” said Ismail. “I believe that the case of Baha’is was an indicator for converts … If we were able to push their case, then we can defend the rights of converts.”

The human rights activist said that although discrimination against converts who are seen as apostates from Islam is greater than that against those raised in other religions, ultimately converts will be able to gain legal ground. El-Gohary’s case, he said, will play an important role.

“After years of fighting, the Baha’is have rights,” he said. “I think converts will succeed even if it takes years. Many are expecting to see Maher’s case [succeed], because it’s well documented.”

Attorney Ghobreyal said that El-Gohary’s case is on solid legal footing based on Article 46 of the Egyptian Civil Code, which grants religious freedom to the country’s citizens.

In his mind it is irrational that the government gave rights to the Baha’is, who fall outside of the three heavenly religions, while not granting the same rights to Christian converts. His only explanation is that a governmental green light to people to leave Islam could wreak havoc.

Not only is there fear of the Muslim front reacting violently to such a decision, but “they’re afraid that if they allow it, then all Muslims will become Christians,” said Ghobreyal. “They know there are many converts, and they will all officially become Christians.”

The lawyer said there are rumors circulating that there are a few million converts eagerly awaiting the results of El-Gohary’s case. Egypt’s last census in 2006 did not factor in religion, so figures of the Coptic population are based on estimates. These range from 6 to 15 percent of the country’s 80-million population. It is not possible to estimate the number of converts, most of whom live in secrecy.

“Ten years ago, you never heard about a convert, but now you hear that someone is going to the court to ask to become a Christian,” said Ghobreyal.

Hegazy’s Hope

The first convert to file for a change on his ID card, Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, said he was pleased with the progress of El-Gohary’s case and hoped that more converts would take the risk of joining their cause.

“I think that every case added to the convert case will be a help,” said Hegazy.

An outspoken critic of the refusal of Egypt’s established churches to openly baptize converts, Hegazy said that in El-Gohary’s case publicity and criticism pushed the church to take a step in the right direction in producing the conversion certificate.

“But this is not a big step, and there are many more that need to be taken and have not been,” he said. “Just to be clear, the [Egyptian] church has not given a baptism certificate, it has given an acceptance letter, and the church has declared they are not going to give a baptism paper … but we can’t deny that the step that the priest took to give the certificate was audacious.”

Hegazy, who lost his case in January 2008 and is waiting for an appeal date, was never able to get a baptism certificate, nor can he travel since he does not have a passport. If he returns to his hometown to apply for one, he risks losing his life.

He said he still hopes any of Egypt’s churches will help him by baptizing him and giving him a certificate in time for his appeal or for a new case he plans to open soon. Hegazy said that although his case is not as public as it used to be, he still faces danger when he leaves his house.

Although he is also in hiding and fears for his life, El-Gohary said he hopes his case opens the way for other converts to experience freedom.

“I hope this for all of those who want to live in the light and the sun; there are many families,” he said of Egypt’s converts. “I want to live in peace as a Christian. I hope my country gives me the freedom to worship my God and gives me my human rights.”

Egypt is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body made up of 47 states responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. On April 18, 2007, in its written statement applying for a seat to the Human Rights Council, the representative of Egypt to the U.N. stated that if elected it would emphasize promoting cultural and religious tolerance, among other human rights.

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: CONVERT ARRESTED FOR MARRYING CHRISTIAN


Couple goes into hiding as police place Islamic law over Egyptian penal code.

ISTANBUL, April 23 (Compass Direct News) – Christian convert Raheal Henen Mussa and her Coptic husband are hiding from police and her Muslim family for violating an article of Islamic law (sharia) that doesn’t exist in the Egyptian penal code.

Police arrested Mussa, 22, on April 13 for marrying Sarwat George Ryiad in a customary marriage (zawag al ‘urfi), an unregistered form of matrimony in Egypt made without witnesses. It has gained popularity among Egyptian youth but is not sanctioned by most Islamic scholars.

The two signed a marriage contract between themselves. Only Ryiad and their attorney have a copy. Police have not obtained a copy of the contract, but they used its existence as a pretext for arresting Mussa.

According to a strict interpretation of sharia, Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men, although the opposite is allowed, and Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution stipulates that sharia is the basis for legislation.

The two have not committed a crime according to Egyptian law since they didn’t seek official marriage status, but police and Mussa’s family are pursuing them because they violated Islamic law, advocacy groups say.

“They have not violated the law, but the family and the police are applying their own unwritten law,” said Helmy Guirguis, president of the U.K. Coptic Association. “Islamic law interprets that if a Muslim girl marries a non-Muslim man, even on paper, they are breaking the law of God, not the law of man.”

The two could not get married in an official ceremony since Mussa is considered a Muslim by birth, and changing one’s religious status away from Islam is impossible in Egypt. A lawsuit is pending, however, for a Muslim-born man to change his status on his identity card.

Formerly known as Samr Mohamed Hansen, Mussa converted to Christianity three years ago, before marrying Ryiad. Police arrested her as she came home from her workplace at a Cairo salon. They identified her by the Coptic cross tattoo on her right arm – a common mark among Copts.

She was transferred to a station operated by the secret police, where she stayed until Sunday (April 19), when her family took her. While in their custody, her family completely burned off her cross tattoo, according to the U.K. Coptic Association.

Mussa escaped from them on Tuesday (April 21). She and her husband fled Cairo and are in hiding. If the two are caught, advocates fear, they could be forcibly separated, arrested and beaten, with Mussa being returned to her family.

Sharia influence in Egyptian law also means that Muslims have the right (hisbah) to file a lawsuit against someone who has violated the “rights of God.” This provision, advocates fear, means Mussa and Ryiad’s unsanctioned marriage could make them targets of Muslim extremists wishing to apply the full extent of this law.

The most famous example of hisbah’s application came in 1995, when Cairo University professor Nasr Abuh Zayd was declared an “infidel” and forcibly divorced from his wife for criticizing orthodox views of the Quran.

Ryiad and Mussa were not married in a Coptic ceremony, as many churches avoid marrying registered Muslims to non-Muslims for fear of being targeted by authorities and Islamic extremists.

“Nobody [in Egypt] can declare the marriage of a Coptic man to a Muslim girl,” attorney Naguib Gabriel told Compass. “It would be very dangerous to the life of a priest.”

 

Marriage Woes

Mussa and Ryiad’s case is the latest in a spurt of recent arrests and lawsuits against those who don’t adhere to the Islamic-influenced dictum that Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men.

In October 2008, a Cairo court handed Father Metaos Wahba a five-year prison sentence for issuing a marriage certificate to a Christian man and a Muslim convert to Christianity. He stated that he did not know the woman’s papers stating her religion as “Christian” were a forgery.

Human rights groups have called on Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak to release Fr. Wahba, as Egypt is a signatory to the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which allows full religious freedom, including conversion.

Mussa’s jailing mirrored that of Christian convert Martha Samuel Makkar, 24, detained last December at a Cairo airport for attempting to flee the country with her husband. She was charged with carrying forged documents that listed her religion as Christian and incarcerated for a month.

A judge granted her bail but not before threatening to kill her for leaving Islam (see “Judge Tells of Desire to Kill Christian,” Jan. 27).

Nadia Tawfiq, the lawyer in charge of Makkar’s chase, said many arrests and trials in Egypt result from laws that assign people social status according to the religion on their identity cards.

She said the best hope for change is a May 2 court hearing of Maher El-Gohary, a Muslim-born man who is fighting to have his Christian religion recognized on his official documents. If he succeeds, he would be the first person in the country to be granted that right.

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: JUDGE TELLS OF DESIRE TO KILL CHRISTIAN


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

PAKISTAN: SISTERS ABDUCTED, FORCED TO CONVERT TO ISLAM


Repeatedly raped, minor and 18-year-old now face societal rejection.

ISTANBUL, January 19 (Compass Direct News) – The ordeal of two teenage Christian sisters in Pakistan is over after Muslims allegedly abducted and raped them and forced them to convert to Islam, but they fear a future of societal rejection.

Parvisha Masih, 18, and Sanam Masih, 14, said three Muslim men kidnapped them last November, raping them several times during two weeks of captivity.

“We are happy to return to the family, but we are feeling ashamed because there is no respect for us in society now,” Parvisha Masih said. “We don’t want to go back to school and have to face our friends.”

They face a long legal battle that will inevitably bring them into contact with their captors – who have already assaulted their family in court.

“We feel very afraid, and we are still receiving threats,” Parvisha Masih told Compass. “We are worried about our family and about ourselves. I don’t ever want to see those men again.”

On Jan. 2 the sisters recorded statements concerning their alleged abduction, rape and forced conversion to Islam before a local magistrate in Gujranwala. Earlier, they gave statements in Karachi, where they had been taken by their captors some 840 miles to the south. Two First Incident Reports (FIRs) have been filed.

In Gujranwala, Muhammad Irfan, Muhammed Mehboob and Muhammed Rafique, Mehboob’s brother-in-law, are charged with kidnapping.

 

Kidnapped

Irfan and Mehboob, suspected of involvement in a human trafficking ring, at first made contact with Parvisha Masih accidentally.

“Parvisha received a wrong number call and talked to Muhammad Irfan,” said Katherine Karamat, an investigative officer for the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). “Some days later, Irfan called again and told her that he had a beauty salon, and if she wanted training he could arrange that for her.”

Eager to earn extra money for the family, Masih convinced her younger sister Sanam to join her in accepting the offer, according to CLAAS.

Irfan arranged to drive them to their first day of work in his car. At 10 a.m. on Nov. 12, Irfan and Mehboob picked the sisters up from their home.

“This is a common practice now,” said Michael Javaid, a Pakistani member of parliament based in Karachi. “They offer poor people from the villages a good job, and the parents are poor so they trust them, but then they bring these girls and sell them to other people.”

According to the sisters’ testimony, Irfan stopped the car after roughly half an hour to buy beverages. He offered them both a bottle of fruit juice that they drank, unaware that he had drugged it.

En route to Karachi, Irfan and Mehboob then drove the sisters to a motel in Mianwali, threatening them at gunpoint and telling them they would be killed if they tried to escape. The sisters reported that the men then raped them.

In the morning they were ushered back into the car and driven to the coastal city of Karachi, where they were held captive at Rafique’s house. Over the next five days, they said, the men raped them repeatedly.

Masih and Sanam then were taken to a madrassa (Islamic school), where a mufti issued certificates stating that the two had become Muslims. Parvisha Masih was renamed Sana, and her sister received the name Tayyaba.

Javaid and lawyers from CLAAS challenged these certificates, asserting that the sisters did not sign them.

“Anyone can get these papers by giving some kind of a bribe; [clerics] feel it is a service to Islam,” said Javaid. “They will issue a certificate without knowing the will of the person, whether this is a forcible conversion or not.”

Following their forced conversion at the madrassa, the Muslims took the sisters to the office of lawyers Nayer Zia-Ul-Din and Kokab Sahab-Ul-Din. Irfan explained to the lawyers that the sisters had converted to Islam and did not wish to return home to their Christian family, but instead wanted to stay at the government-run Dar-Ul-Aman shelter for women. Before leaving, Irfan told Masih and Sanam that they would be freed after the lawyers brought them to court the following day.

The lawyers told the sisters to sign blank sheets of paper, forging testimony from the pair that they planned to use to support their case, according to CLAAS. The attorneys told the sisters that they could stay with their family that night and took Masih and Sanam to their home, but no other family members were present.

After the sisters had fallen asleep, according to CLAAS, Sahab-Ul-Din took Parvisha Masih into a separate room and sexually abused her. Police found medication in Sahab-Ul-Din’s apartment indicating that the sisters were again drugged. Sanam said she woke up when she heard her older sister crying for help.

“I took the mobile of the lawyer and called 15 [the emergency police number in Pakistan],” she told Compass. “One lawyer had left; the other was with Parvisha.” She was able to escape the house and describe her location to authorities.

Police arrived at the scene shortly afterward, immediately referring Parvisha Masih to a hospital and arresting Sahab-Ul-Din, whom they took to the Ferozabad police station. The other lawyer, Zia-Ul-Din, had left but was later arrested at his home.

At the police station, Sanam called her father, Arif Masih, who rushed to Karachi to bring his daughters back home.

 

Assaulted in Court

The following day (Nov. 22), the sisters appeared before a magistrate to give testimony, accompanied by their father and other relatives. Defendants Zia-Ul-Din and Sahab-Ul-Din, both charged with rape, were also present. Upon learning that the sisters’ father was in the room, they located him and began to attack him.

“The magistrate was in his chambers, and so the lawyers attacked the father and relatives, beating them, even the women, there in the courtroom, which never happened before!” said Javaid. “All the police were called, the FHO [court police], the superintendant and deputy superintendant, and they took them to the lock-up for safety.”

Javaid said he plans to take a strong contingent of associates when they next appear in court to protect the sisters and deter another attack.

This is the second known case of its kind in recent months. Saba and Aneela Masih underwent a similar ordeal last July, and although 10-year-old Aneela has been returned to her family, her 13-year-old sister, forced to marry one of the men who kidnapped her, remains with her captors.

Christian girls from poor families make easy targets, and many cases go undocumented, Javaid told Compass. High legal fees often make it impossible for poor families to bring a case to court. Corrupt lawyers, easily swayed by bribes, often create further expense.

On top of this, a biased legal system that favors Muslims over Christians is particularly reluctant to pass judgments that would undermine conversion to Islam.

“Because both [Parvisha and Sanam Masih] are Christian and the accused were Muslim, to save their skin they made [the sisters] embrace Islam forcefully so they can marry them maybe or whatever they want,” said CLAAS lawyer Samson Joseph.

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: CHRISTIAN IN MUSLIM ID CASE WINS RIGHT TO APPEAL


Arrest warrant rescinded for woman imprisoned because her father briefly converted to Islam.

ISTANBUL, December 2 (Compass Direct News) – A Supreme Court judge in Egypt on Nov. 22 granted Christian Bahia El-Sisi the right to appeal her conviction for falsification of documents – a charge stemming from her official papers not identifying her as a Muslim.

In addition, Judge Abdel Meged Mahmood on Nov. 25 rescinded a Sept. 23 warrant for El-Sisi’s arrest, declaring that she should be free pending a final decision. Mahmood is the same judge who in January freed El-Sisi’s sister, who had been convicted on the same charges of “forgery.”

The charges against El-Sisi and her sister, Shadia El-Sisi, claimed that their marriage certificates contained false information that they were Christians. Unknown to them, their religious identity officially changed 46 years ago due to their father’s brief conversion to Islam. Both are illiterate.

In the Nov. 22 hearing granting Bahia El-Sisi the right to appeal, Mahmood noted that her marriage certificate made no mention of her religion, according to her lawyer.

Investigation into the sisters’ religious status began following a visit made to their father, Nagy El-Sisi, himself in prison for forgery. Nagy El-Sisi, who had briefly converted to Islam in 1962 before reconverting three years later, obtained a forged Christian ID because there is no official means for converting from Islam in Egypt.

Under sharia (Islamic law), which heavily influences Egyptian law, the sisters are considered Muslims due to their father’s conversion. They learned that their father had briefly converted to Islam only recently, long after getting married, and had no idea they could officially be considered Muslims.

Both sisters were originally charged with forging official documents and sentenced in absentia in 2000; each was given a three-year jail sentence.

Shadia El-Sisi was not arrested until August 2007, and her first hearing was on Nov. 21, 2007 at the Shobra El-Khema criminal court. Judge Hadar Tobla Hossan sentenced her to three years in prison.

She was in prison until Jan. 13, when Mahmood retracted the sentence because she was unaware of her conversion by proxy and due to legal technicalities that voided incriminating evidence.

Bahia El-Sisi was held for over two months between May and July of this year. She was then released pending a final court decision. She told Compass about her recent experiences.

“There is no rest in prison, and I was tired and unable to get enough rest or enough food,” she said. “Everybody was [left to fend] for themselves.”

For more than four months she was in hiding, moving from place to place to avoid another arrest.

“I can’t go near the house, I move from one place to another,” she said before the arrest warrant was rescinded. “I rarely see my children, I am worried about them.”

On Sept. 23, Hossan ruled that El-Sisi had forged documents and that the three-year prison sentence would stand. In the Nov. 22 hearing, Mahmood ruled that there was no evidence El-Sisi had forged documents, as no such documents could be produced as proof; the marriage certificate in question did not state her religion, said her lawyer, Peter Ramses.

Mahmood ruled that Hossan’s decision was “so bad and so wrong,” said Ramses. “Then Mahmood gave a decision saying to the police, ‘Don’t arrest her.’”

Bahia El-Sisi’s six children anxiously awaited the outcome of the appeal, fearing that, in a domino effect, their religious status may also have to change following a negative outcome.

El-Sisi remained defiant.

“I am a Christian, I will remain Christian,” she told Compass. “Christ in front of me will guide my steps.”  

Report from Compass Direct News