Egyptian Couple Shot by Muslim Extremists Undaunted in Ministry

Left for dead, Christians offer to drop charges if allowed to construct church building.

CAIRO, Egypt, June 9 (CDN) — Rasha Samir was sure her husband, Ephraim Shehata, was dead.

He was covered with blood, had two bullets inside him and was lying facedown in the dust of a dirt road. Samir was lying on top of him doing her best to shelter him from the onslaught of approaching gunmen.

With arms outstretched, the men surrounded Samir and Shehata and pumped off round after round at the couple. Seconds before, Samir could hear her husband mumbling Bible verses. But one bullet had pierced his neck, and now he wasn’t moving. In a blind terror, Samir tried desperately to stop her panicked breathing and convincingly lie still, hoping the gunmen would go away.

Finally, the gunfire stopped and one of the men spoke. “Let’s go. They’re dead.”


‘Break the Hearts’

On the afternoon of Feb. 27, lay pastor Shehata and his wife Samir were ambushed on a desolate street by a group of Islamic gunmen outside the village of Teleda in Upper Egypt.

The attack was meant to “break the hearts of the Christians” in the area, Samir said.

The attackers shot Shehata twice, once in the stomach through the back, and once in the neck. They shot Samir in the arm. Both survived the attack, but Shehata is still in the midst of a difficult recovery. The shooters have since been arrested and are in jail awaiting trial. A trial cannot begin until Shehata has recovered enough to attend court proceedings.

Despite this trauma, being left with debilitating injuries, more than 85,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,855) in medical bills and possible long-term unemployment, Shehata is willing to drop all criminal charges against his attackers – and avoid what could be a very embarrassing trial for the nation – if the government will stop blocking Shehata from constructing a church building.

Before Shehata was shot, one of the attackers pushed him off his motorcycle and told him he was going to teach him a lesson about “running around” or being an active Christian.

Because of his ministry, the 34-year-old Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, was arguably the most visible Christian in his community. When he wasn’t working as a lab technician or attending legal classes at a local college, he was going door-to-door among Christians to encourage them in any way he could. He also ran a community center and medical clinic out of a converted two-bedroom apartment. His main goal, he said, was to “help Christians be strong in their faith.”

The center, open now for five years, provided much-needed basic medical services for surrounding residents for free, irrespective of their religion. The center also provided sewing training and a worksite for Christian women so they could gain extra income. Before the center was open in its present location, he ran similar services out of a relative’s apartment.

“We teach them something that can help them with the future, and when they get married they can have some way to work and it will help them get money for their families,” Shehata said.

Additionally, the center was used to teach hygiene and sanitation basics to area residents, a vital service to a community that uses well water that is often polluted or full of diseases. Along with these services, Shehata and his wife ran several development projects, repairing the roofs of shelters for poor people, installing plumbing, toilets and electrical systems. The center also distributed free food to the elderly and the infirm.

The center has been run by donations and nominal fees used to pay the rent for the apartment. Shehata has continued to run the programs as aggressively as he can, but he said that even before the shooting that the center was barely scraping by.

“We have no money to build or improve anything,” he said. “We have a safe, but no money to put in it.”


Tense Atmosphere

In the weeks before the shooting, Teleda and the surrounding villages were gripped with fear.

Christians in the community had been receiving death threats by phone after a Muslim man died during an attack on a Christian couple. On Feb. 2, a group of men in nearby Samalout tried to abduct a Coptic woman from a three-wheeled motorcycle her husband was driving. The husband, Zarif Elia, punched one of the attackers in the nose. The Muslim, Basem Abul-Eid, dropped dead on the spot.

Elia was arrested and charged with murder. An autopsy later revealed that the man died of a heart attack, but local Muslims were incensed.

Already in the spotlight for his ministry activities, Shehata heightened his profile when he warned government officials that Christians were going to be attacked, as they had been in Farshout and Nag Hammadi the previous month. He also gave an interview to a human rights activist that was posted on numerous Coptic websites. Because of this, government troops were deployed to the town, and extremists were unable to take revenge on local Christians – but only after almost the
entire Christian community was placed under house arrest.

“They chose me,” Shehata said, “Because they thought I was the one serving everybody, and I was the one who wrote the government telling them that Muslims were going to set fire to the Christian houses because of the death.”

Because of his busy schedule, Shehata and Samir, 27, were only able to spend Fridays and part of every Saturday together in a village in Samalut, where Shehata lives. Every Saturday after seeing Samir, Shehata would drive her back through Teleda to the village where she lives, close to her family. Samalut is a town approximately 105 kilometers (65 miles) south of Cairo.

On the afternoon of Feb. 27, Shehata and his wife were on a motorcycle on a desolate stretch of hard-packed dirt road. Other than a few scattered farming structures, there was nothing near the road but the Nile River on one side, and open fields dotted with palm trees on the other.

Shehata approached a torn-up section of the road and slowed down. A man walked up to the vehicle carrying a big wooden stick and forced him to stop. Shehata asked the man what was wrong, but he only pushed Shehata off the motorcycle and told him, “I’m going to stop you from running around,” Samir recounted.

Shehata asked the man to let Samir go. “Whatever you are going to do, do it to me,” he told the man.

The man didn’t listen and began hitting Shehata on the leg with the stick. As Shehata stumbled, Samir screamed for the man to leave them alone. The man lifted the stick again, clubbed Shehata once more on the leg and knocked him to the ground. As Shehata struggled to get up, the man took out a pistol, leveled it at Shehata’s back and squeezed the trigger.

Samir started praying and screaming Jesus’ name. The man turned toward her, raised the pistol once more, squeezed off another round, and shot Samir in the arm. Samir looked around and saw a few men running toward her, but her heart sank when she realized they had come not to help them but to join the assault.

Samir jumped on top of Shehata, rolled on to her back and started begging her attackers for their lives, but the men, now four in all, kept firing. Bullets were flying everywhere.

“I was scared. I thought I was going to die and that the angels were going to come and get our spirits,” Samir said. “I started praying, ‘Please God, forgive me, I’m a sinner and I am going to die.’”

Samir decided to play dead. She leaned back toward her husband, closed her eyes, went limp and tried to stop breathing. She said she felt that Shehata was dying underneath her.

“I could hear him saying some of the Scriptures, the one about the righteous thief [saying] ‘Remember me when you enter Paradise,’” she said. “Then a bullet went through his neck, and he stopped saying anything.”

Samir has no way of knowing how much time passed, but eventually the firing stopped. After she heard one of the shooters say, “Let’s go, they’re dead,” moments later she opened her eyes and the men were gone. When she lifted her head, she heard her husband moan.


Unlikely Survival

When Shehata arrived at the hospital, his doctors didn’t think he would survive. He had lost a tremendous amount of blood, a bullet had split his kidney in two, and the other bullet was lodged in his neck, leaving him partially paralyzed.

His heartbeat was so faint it couldn’t be detected. He was also riddled with a seemingly limitless supply of bullet fragments throughout his body.

Samir, though seriously injured, had fared much better than Shehata. The bullet went into her arm but otherwise left her uninjured. When she was shot, Samir was wearing a maternity coat. She wasn’t pregnant, but the couple had bought the coat in hopes she soon would be. Samir said she thinks the gunman who shot her thought he had hit her body, instead of just her arm.

The church leadership in Samalut was quickly informed about the shooting and summoned the best doctors they could, who quickly traveled to help Shehata and Samir. By chance, the hospital had a large supply of blood matching Shehata’s blood type because of an elective surgical procedure that was cancelled. The bullets were removed, and his kidney was repaired. The doctors however, were forced to leave many of the bullet fragments in Shehata’s body.

As difficult as it was to piece Shehata’s broken body back together, it paled in comparison with the recovery he had to suffer through. He endured multiple surgeries and was near death several times during his 70 days of hospitalization.

Early on, Shehata was struck with a massive infection. Also, because part of his internal tissue was cut off from its blood supply, it literally started to rot inside him. He began to swell and was in agony.

“I was screaming, and they brought the doctors,” Shehata said. The doctors decided to operate immediately.

When a surgeon removed one of the clamps holding Shehata’s abdomen together, the intense pressure popped off most of the other clamps. Surgeons removed some stomach tissue, part of his colon and more than a liter of infectious liquid.

Shehata could not eat normally and lost 35 kilograms (approximately 77 lbs.). He also couldn’t evacuate his bowels for at least 11 days, his wife said.

Despite the doctors’ best efforts, infections continued to rage through Shehata’s body, accompanied by alarming spikes in body temperature.

Eventually, doctors sent him to a hospital in Cairo, where he spent a week under treatment. A doctor there prescribed a different regimen of antibiotics that successfully fought the infection and returned Shehata’s body temperature to normal.

Shehata is recovering at home now, but he still has a host of medical problems. He has to take a massive amount of painkillers and is essentially bedridden. He cannot walk without assistance, is unable to move the fingers on his left hand and cannot eat solid food. In approximately two months he will undergo yet another surgery that, if all goes well, will allow him to use the bathroom normally.

“Even now I can’t walk properly, and I can’t lift my leg more than 10 or 20 centimeters. I need someone to help me just to pull up my underwear,” Shehata said. “I can move my arm, but I can’t move my fingers.”

Samir does not complain about her condition or that of Shehata. Instead, she sees the fact that she and her husband are even alive as a testament to God’s faithfulness. She said she thinks God allowed them to be struck with the bullets that injured them but pushed away the bullets that would have killed them.

“There were lots of bullets being shot, but they didn’t hit us, only three or four,” she said. “Where are the others?”

Even in the brutal process of recovery, Samir found cause for thanks. In the beginning, Shehata couldn’t move his left arm, but now he can. “Thank God and thank Jesus, it was His blessing to us,” Samir said. “We were kind of dead, now we are alive."

Still, Samir admits that sometimes her faith waivers. She is facing the possibility that Shehata might not work for some time, if ever. The couple owes the 85,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,855) in medical bills, and continuing their ministry at the center and in the surrounding villages will be difficult at best.

“I am scared now, more so than during the shooting,” she said. “Ephraim said do not be afraid, it is supposed to make us stronger.”

So Samir prays for strength for her husband to heal and for patience. In the meantime, she said she looks forward to the day when the struggles from the shooting are over and she can look back and see how God used it to shape them.

“There is a great work the Lord is doing in our lives, we may not know what the reason is now, but maybe some day we will,” Samir said.


Government Opposition

For the past 10 years, Shehata has tried to erect a church building, or at a minimum a house, that he could use as a dedicated community center. But local Muslims and Egypt’s State Security Investigations (SSI) agency have blocked him every step of the way. He had, until the shooting happened, all but given up on constructing the church building.

On numerous occasions, Shehata has been stopped from holding group prayer meetings after people complained to the SSI. In one incident, a man paid by a land owner to watch a piece of property near the community center complained to the SSI that Shehata was holding prayer meetings at the facility. The SSI made Shehata sign papers stating he wouldn’t hold prayer meetings at the center.

At one time, Shehata had hoped to build a house to use as a community center on property that had been given to him for that purpose. Residents spread a rumor that he was actually erecting a church building, and police massed at the property to prevent him from doing any construction.

There is no church in the town where Shehata lives or in the surrounding villages. Shehata admits he would like to put up a church building on the donated property but says it is impossible, so he doesn’t even try.

In Egypt constructing or even repairing a church building can only be done after a complex government approval process. In effect, it makes it impossible to build a place for Christian worship. By comparison, the construction of mosques is encouraged through a system of subsidies.

“It is not allowed to build a church in Egypt,” Shehata said. “We can’t build a house. We can’t build a community center. And we can’t build a church.”

Because of this, Shehata and his wife organize transportation from surrounding villages to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Samalut for Friday services and sacraments. Because of the lack of transportation options, the congregants are forced to ride in a dozen open-top cattle cars.

“We take them not in proper cars or micro-buses, but trucks – the same trucks we use to move animals,” he said.

The trip is dangerous. A year ago a man fell out of one of the trucks onto the road and died. Shehata said bluntly that Christians are dying in Egypt because the government won’t allow them to construct church buildings.

“I feel upset about the man who died on the way going to church,” he said.


Church-for-Charges Swap

The shooters who attacked Shehata and Samir are in jail awaiting trial. The couple has identified each of the men, but even if they hadn’t, finding them for arrest was not a difficult task. The village the attackers came from erupted in celebration when they heard the pastor and his wife were dead.

Shehata now sees the shooting as a horrible incident that can be turned to the good of the believers he serves. He said he finds it particularly frustrating that numerous mosques have sprouted up in his community and surrounding areas during the 10 years he has been prevented from putting up a church building, or even a house. There are two mosques alone on the street of the man who died while being trucked to church services, he said.

Shehata has decided to forgo justice in pursuit of an opportunity to finally construct a church building. He has approached the SSI through church leaders, saying that if he is allowed to construct a church building, then he will take no part in the criminal prosecution of the shooters.

“I have told the security forces through the priests that I will drop the case if they can let us build the church on the piece of land,” he said.

The proposal isn’t without possibilities. His trial has the potential of being internationally embarrassing. It raises questions about fairness in Egyptian society during an upcoming presidential election that will be watched by the world.

Regardless of what happens, Shehata said all he wants is peace and for the rights of Christians to be respected. He said that in Egypt, Christians have less value than the “birds of the air” mentioned in the Bible. According to Luke 12:6, five sparrows sold for two pennies in ancient times.

“We are not to be killed like birds, slaughtered,” he said. “We are human.”

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 


Strangely, officers arrest Copts; roof collapses after Muslim suspects set fire to church building.

ISTANBUL, July 17 (Compass Direct News) – Villagers in Ezbet Basillious, Minya suspect local police in Egypt of corruption and collusion after two Copts were arrested for an arson attack on their own house church on Saturday (July 11).

Egyptian State Security Investigations (SSI) officers later arrested three Muslim suspects in accordance with eyewitness testimony that local police had ignored. The suspects were seen entering the Church of St. Abaskharion Kellini with cans of kerosene and leaving it shortly after, shouting “Allahu Akbar [God is great].”

The two Copts who were arrested, 35-year-old Reda Gamal and Fulla Assad, 30, are still in custody.

Suspicions of police collusion come not only from the inexplicable arrests of the Copts but also from the lack of police presence while the church was burning. Guards who were stationed outside the property had left their posts, and according to some reports they had moved to a nearby café and were drinking tea while the property burned.

“It sounds like a pre-arranged situation, that they [the arsonists] knew this was the agreed time, [when] the guards were away,” a source told Compass. “Mahmoud Muhammad Hussein, the head guard, and Mustafa Moussa, one of the village guards, were heard telling people, ‘Say Reda set fire to the church.’ So the local police were involved.”

The attack in Ezbet Basillious, 90 kilometers south of Cairo, took place shortly before noon. The perpetrators entered the building where the church met using a connecting door from an adjoining residence. The fire cracked walls and caused the roof to cave in.

It took police two hours to arrive at the scene, according to Suleiman Faiz, a local schoolteacher.

Three Copts were taken to the police station, initially only for questioning – Gamal, Assad and Assad’s 75-year-old mother-in-law. Assad and her mother-in-law live in a home next to the house used by the church, and it was through their connecting door that the attackers entered the locked building.

The two women were present in the house at the time and witnessed three men carrying cans of kerosene. Mary Abdelmassih, a reporter for the Assyrian International News Agency, said the arsonists threatened them at knife-point to remain quiet and not call for help.

After questioning, Assad and her mother-in-law returned home. The following day Assad was arrested, and at press time she and Gamal were still being held.

“This Copt, Gamal, they took him as a pawn in order that later they could twist the church’s arm to give up its rights,” Abdelmassih said. “This happens every time, there is no change in the scenario at all.”

Buildings in Egypt require government permission to be used for religious gatherings, and typically churches find it very difficult to obtain.

Officials promised the Abaskharion Kellini house church a prayer license on July 3 that would enable the building in which it meets to be used as a place of prayer; the congregation has struggled in vain for 30 years to construct another church building for worship. Having received verbal assurance that a prayer license would be granted for the building in which it met, the diocese’s bishop held a consecration service there, and SSI officials then closed the house church and placed it under guard pending formal permission.

The attack marked the third recent incident of violence against the Coptic community in Minya, with new church premises being the precipitating factor in each case. Muslim mobs on June 6 attacked a building in Ezbet Boushra-East on suspicion that it would be converted into a worship place, and the same thing happened on July 3 at a building in Ezbet Guirgis Bey.

“People are really fed up, and if they lose patience there will be fighting in the streets,” a source who requested anonymity told Compass. “A lot of young people are getting so exhausted from this persecution that they might do anything; they’ve had enough.”

Schoolteacher Faiz, 34, told Compass that initially the attack on the Abaskharion Kellini house church made him and others angry.

“You can imagine the amount of anger one would have to a very unfair situation like this,” he said. “Equality and justice for everybody is essential. We love Egypt and would like it to take its place among the respectable nations on earth.”

Faiz said he hopes some day Egypt becomes free of corrupt police in order to have full freedom of religion.

“We trust that these little actions and these little conspiracies from low-ranking police forces, and those who have infiltrated police with radical ideas, which are against the country’s interest, are found out and corrected,” he said. “Because we still trust the higher ranking people in leadership.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Orissa police confirm Maoists killed Saraswati; thousands flee amid continued violence.

NEW DELHI, October 10 (Compass Direct News) – After police in the eastern state of Orissa confirmed this week that Maoists killed Hindu nationalist leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a Hindu extremist group circulated allegedly forged documents in an attempt to implicate a local church in the Aug. 23 murder.

The Hindu Jagaran Samukhya (Society for Revival of Hinduism or HJS) circulated documents saying the plan to kill Saraswati in Kandhamal district was made at a meeting at Bethikala Church on May 25 attended by 17 people following a briefing and command from religious leaders, the Press Trust of India news agency reported yesterday.

Local Christian leaders responded by saying they will file defamation charges.

“We will file both civil and criminal defamation cases against the person who made such allegations,” Father Joseph Kalathil from the Catholic Archbishop House in Bhubaneswar and the Rev. Fr. Prafulla Ku Sabhapati, president of the Bethikala Parish Council of Kandhamal, said in a statement. “Not only our signatures were forged, the contents of the documents were also fabricated.”

On Oct. 6 Orissa state police confirmed that Maoists killed Saraswati, a day after the chief of the Orissa unit of the banned Communist Party of India-Maoist, Sabyasachi Panda, told NDTV 24X7 news that his organization was behind the murder.

The Maoists killed Saraswati because he was a key leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Panda told the channel. The VHP, he said, used non-tribal traders’ money to build VHP’s youth wing, Bajrang Dal, and ran a campaign against Christians, falsely accusing them of forced conversions and killing cows, considered holy by Hindus.

“This forced us to attack him,” Panda said. “We left two letters claiming responsibility for the murders. But the [Chief Minister Naveen] Patnaik government suppressed those letters. It is a BJP [Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party] government; they will support the VHP. The state government made it look like Christian groups were responsible for the attack. The Christian community in Orissa does not have any Maoist organization supporting them here.”

There were also reports, however, of the Orissa police having arrested three tribal Christians in connection with Saraswati’s murder. The Indian Express reported that the three had confessed their involvement.

A representative of the Christian Legal Association told Compass that according to sources, the police had tortured the three Christians to pressure them to confess a crime they did not commit.

After the assassination of Saraswati, Hindu extremist groups blamed local Christians and began attacks on them, their houses and their churches. The worst violence against Christians in modern India erupted in spite of the Orissa police and media stating on the day of the murder that suspected Maoists killed Saraswati.

According to the All India Christian Council, more than 60 people have been killed, more than 18,000 injured and around 4,500 houses and churches destroyed in the “retributive” violence. Two Christian women, including a nun, were also gang-raped. The violence, which later spread to at least 14 districts of Orissa, has left more than 50,000 people homeless.


Attacks Continue

Orissa’s Kandhamal district remained tense even 48 days after the violence began.

Yesterday about 15 houses were burned down by a mob in the Lansaripalli village in Kantamal Block of neighboring Boudh district, The Hindu reported. The attackers came from the Gochhapada area of Kandhamal district.

“Thursday’s was the third incident in Boudh district,” added the daily. “More than 100 houses were burnt down in two separate attacks in the past few days.”

On Wednesday (Oct. 8), a mob burned and looted at least 25 houses belonging to Christians in the Balligada village under Daringbadi police station in Kandhamal’s Nuagam Block, Father Ajay Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Bhubaneswar told Compass.

On Tuesday (Oct. 7), over five houses were torched in Jalespanga area under Phiringia police jurisdiction in Kandhamal. Another house was burned in the Sujeli village of G. Udayagiri Block the same day.

The Hindu also said the more than 16,000 Christians living in various relief camps were not returning to their villages, fearing attacks on them if they refused to convert to Hinduism.

Fr. Singh from the Bhubaneswar Archdiocese told Compass that over 12,000 Christians from various relief camps had moved out of Kandhamal to other districts and states, as they feared more attacks.


Supporting Violence

The president of the VHP, Ashok Singhal, told Zee News channel on Sunday (Oct. 5), “What Hindu organizations including the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, India’s chief Hindu nationalist group] are doing in Orissa is all legal and is the reaction of the murder of VHP leader Saraswati, who was like Jesus Christ to us.”

In an interview with The Week magazine (Oct. 5), Singhal said that Hindu youth are “ready to die and, if necessary, to kill. [Their] patience is ebbing.”

Singhal added that a “Hindu uprising” had begun, “and the political parties will have to rethink and reinvent themselves, for their own existence. If there is no arrangement for Hindus’ security, they’ll do it on their own. The Hindus will not die. If that self-defence is militancy, so be it … the Hindu never went around the world for suzerainty or to convert … now they are here, undermining us. That causes anger. In fact many want to fight back this harvesting of Hindus.”

In addition, a leader of the Bajrang Dal in the southern state of Karnataka admitted to supporting recent attacks on churches while speaking to The Week magazine. “We supported those who attacked the churches, as it is a justified fight,” Bajrang Dal convenor Mahendra Kumar said.

The violence in Orissa spread to several other states, including Karnataka, where around 20 churches were destroyed and 20 Christians were attacked in the recent weeks.

As many political parties and rights groups have demanded a ban on the Bajrang Dal for attacking Christians and churches in Orissa and other states, the federal government ruled by the United Progressive Alliance has mandated the National Integration Council to give its recommendations, reported the Times of India today.

The Bajrang Dal, however, warned that any such move would have “grave consequences” for the government politically, saying there was “no legal ground” for such an action.

There are 897,861 Christians in Orissa, which has a population of 36.8 million.  

Report from Compass Direct News