The push for Sharia Law adoption in Australia is not widely supported by Australian Muslims according to a report in The Australian newspaper.
The push for Sharia Law adoption in Australia is not widely supported by Australian Muslims according to a report in The Australian newspaper.
Government-perpetrated violence against a Catholic village in Vietnam has highlighted a series of human rights abuses in the communist nation, and three U.S. congressmen are calling on the United Nations to intervene, reports Baptist Press.
"A few months ago during a religious funeral procession, Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods," Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said at a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in August.
"More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police," Smith said.
The Con Dau tragedy, Smith said, "is unfortunately not an isolated incident." Property disputes between the government and the Catholic church continue to lead to harassment, property destruction and violence, Smith said, referring to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
"In recent years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its persecution of Catholic believers, bulldozing churches, dismantling crucifixes and wreaking havoc on peaceful prayer vigils," Smith said.
Persecution is not limited to Catholics, though, as Smith had a list of nearly 300 Montagnard political and religious prisoners. In January, the Vietnamese government sentenced two Montagnard Christians to 9 and 12 years imprisonment for organizing a house church, and others have been arrested in connection with house churches, Smith said.
"The arrests were accompanied by beatings and torture by electroshock devices," the congressman said. "We must not forget the sufferings of Khmer Krom Buddhists, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and others. The said reality is that the Vietnamese government persecutes any religious group that does not submit to government control."
The violence in the 80-year-old Catholic village of Con Dau in central Vietnam reportedly stemmed from a government directive for residents to abandon the village to make way for the construction of a resort.
International Christian Concern, a Washington-based watchdog group, reported that when Con Dau residents refused to leave, water irrigation was shut off to their rice fields, stopping the main source of income and food.
In May, police attacked the funeral procession, beating more than 60 people, including a pregnant woman who was struck in the stomach until she had a miscarriage, ICC said.
One of the funeral procession leaders later was confronted by police in his home, where they beat him for about four hours and then released him. He died the next day, ICC said. Eight people remain in police custody and are awaiting trial.
"The people of Con Dau are living in desperate fear and confusion," Thang Nguyen, executive director of an organization representing Con Dau victims, told ICC. "Hundreds of residents have been fined, and many have escaped to Thailand."
Smith, along with Rep. Joseph Cao, R.-La., and Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced a House resolution in July calling for the United Nations to appoint a special investigator to probe "ongoing and serious human rights violations in Vietnam." In August, the Lantos Commission met in emergency session to address the "brutal murders and systematic treatment of Catholics in Con Dau."
"The Vietnamese government justifies this violence, torture and murder because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered, some through coercion, to leave their village, property, church, century-old cemetery, their religious heritage, and to forgo equitable compensation in order to make way for a new ‘green’ resort," Smith said at the hearing. "Nothing, however, not even governmental orders, grant license for government-sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses."
The U.S. Department of State declined to testify before the Lantos Commission, and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam characterized the Con Dau incident as a land dispute and refused to get involved.
Logan Maurer, a spokesman for International Christian Concern, told Baptist Press he has publicized about 10 different incidents of persecution in Vietnam during the past few months.
"In some cases, especially in Southeast Asia, religious persecution becomes a gray area. We also work extensively in Burma, where often there are mixed motives for why a particular village is attacked," Maurer said. "Is it because they’re Christian? Well, partially. Is it because they’re an ethnic minority? Partially.
"So I think the same thing happens in Vietnam where you have a whole village that’s Catholic. One hundred percent of it was Catholic," he said of Con Dau.
Maurer explained that local government officials in Vietnam generally align Christianity with the western world and democracy, which is still seen as an enemy in Vietnam on a local level.
"As far as the official government Vietnamese position, that’s different, but local government officials do not take kindly to Christians and never have. We have documented many cases of government officials saying Christianity is the enemy. So here it’s mixed motives as best we can figure out," Maurer said.
"They wanted to build a resort there, and they could have picked a different village but they chose the one on purpose that was Catholic because it represents multiple minorities — minority religion, minority also in terms of people that can’t fight back. If they go seek government help, the government is not going to help them."
A Christian volunteer who has visited Vietnam five times in the past decade told Baptist Press the Con Dau incident illustrates the way the Vietnamese government responds to any kind of dissent.
"In our country, and in modern democracies, there are methods for resolving disputes with the government, taking them to court, trying to work through the mediation process," the volunteer, who did not want to be identified, said. "In Vietnam there is no such thing. It is the government’s will or there will be violence."
Vietnam’s constitution includes a provision for religious liberty, but the volunteer said that only goes as far as the communal will of the people, which is monopolized by the Communist Party.
"So when the Communist Party says you can’t build a church there or you can’t worship this way, those who say, ‘Well, I have religious freedom,’ are essentially trumped by the constitution that says it’s the will of the people, not individual liberty that’s important," the volunteer said.
The government in Vietnam has made efforts during the past 15 years to open up the country to economic development, and with that has come an influx of some western values and a lot of Christians doing work there, the volunteer said.
"I would first caution Christians to still be careful when they’re there working," he said, adding that government officials closely watch Christians who visit from other countries, and books about Jesus cause trouble.
Secondly, the volunteer warned that all news emerging from Vietnam must be tested for accuracy on both sides because both those who are persecuting and those who are sounding the alarm on persecution have their own political goals.
"That being said, I don’t doubt that this happened," the volunteer said regarding Con Dau.
International Christian Concern urges Americans to contact the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington at 202-861-0737, and the Christian volunteer said people can contact the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to encourage changes in Vietnam.
"They can also directly e-mail the ambassador and the consular general in Ho Chi Minh City and encourage them to push for more reform," he said. "And they can contact companies that are having products made in Vietnam and encourage the business leaders to speak out for change in those countries. You go to JC Penney today in the men’s department and pick up almost anything, it’s made in Vietnam. That’s the kind of pressure they could put on them."
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Forum highlights religious tensions in Bekasi, West Java.
DUBLIN, July 2 (CDN) — Muslim organizations in Bekasi, West Java, on Sunday (June 27) declared their intention to establish paramilitary units in local mosques and a “mission center” to oppose “ongoing attempts to convert people to Christianity,” according to the national Antara news agency.
At a gathering at the large Al Azhar mosque, the leaders of nine organizations announced the results of a Bekasi Islamic Congress meeting on June 20, where they agreed to establish a mission center to halt “Christianization,” form a Laskar Pemuda youth army and push for implementation of sharia (Islamic law) in the region, The Jakarta Post reported.
“If the Muslims in the city can unite, there will be no more story about us being openly insulted by other religions,” Ahmad Salimin Dani, head of the Bekasi Islamic Missionary Council, announced at the gathering. “The center will ensure that Christians do not act out of order.”
Observing an increasing number of house churches, Muslim organizations have accused Bekasi Christians of aggressive proselytizing. The Rev. Simon Timorason of the West Java Christian Communication Forum (FKKB), however, told Compass that most Christians in the area do not proselytize and meet only in small home fellowships due to the lack of officially recognized worship venues.
Many Christian seminary graduates prefer to remain on Java rather than relocate to distant islands, Timorason added, making West Java the ideal place to launch new home-based fellowships for different denominations. But neighbors see only the multiplication of churches, he said, and therefore suspect Muslims are converting to the Christian faith.
“The ideal solution is to have one building with a permit to be used by different denominations in each housing complex,” Timorason said. “If every denomination wants their own church in the same area, it’s a problem.”
Declaration of Intent
Kanti Prajogo, chairman of the Congress committee, had hoped to present a written declaration of intent to city officials at the mosque gathering, but officials did not respond to his invitation, according to The Jakarta Post.
Around 200 people attended the June 20 Congress, representing local organizations such as the Bekasi Interfaith Dialogue Forum, the Bekasi Movement Against Apostasy, the local chapters of Muhammadiyah and the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) – two of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations – and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), well known for its aggressive opposition to Christians and other non-Muslim groups.
Government officials on Monday (June 28) called for the FPI to be declared a forbidden organization, claiming that FPI members were implicated in “too many” violent incidents.
“We are not concerned about their mission,” legislator Eva Kusuma Sundari reportedly said at a press conference in Jakarta, “but we are concerned about the way they implement their goals.”
A spokesman for another large organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said Tuesday (July 28) that despite one member being present at the congress in an unofficial capacity, NU had not approved the joint declaration, contradicting a statement made the previous day by Bekasi NU official Abul Mutholib Jaelani, who told The Jakarta Post that he had asked all 56 NU branches in the city to contribute at least 10 members to the youth army.
Contributing to Religious Conflict
Rapid residential and industrial development has created huge social problems in Bekasi. Sociologist Andi Sopandi of Bekasi Islamic University told The Jakarta Post that the call for sharia was a warning signal, and that local officials should urgently pursue dialogue between Muslim and Christian leaders.
Locals and newcomers will get along well only if they share similar basic values, particularly religious ones, Sopandi reportedly said, pointing to sharp disputes over the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Jejalen Jaya sub-district earlier this year as an example.
A neighbor of the church confessed to The Jakarta Post that local clerics had asked him and other residents to sign a petition against constructing the HKBP church building and threatened not to pray at their funerals if they failed to cooperate; the majority of his neighbors signed the document under duress.
Under a 2006 Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB), at least 60 local residents must approve the establishment of a house of worship, whether a mosque or a church. The congregation must also have at least 90 members and obtain letters of recommendation from the local interfaith communication forum (FKUB) and religious affairs office before gaining final approval from district officials.
These terms make it virtually impossible for churches in Bekasi to obtain building permits. Bekasi regency has a population of 1.9 million, of which 98.2 percent are Muslim, according to 2006 data from the Bekasi Regency Religious Affairs office. Protestants, who form 0.67 percent (approximately 12,700 people) of the population, and Catholics who make up 0.55 percent, are served by only 16 officially recognized churches in seven of the 23 sub-districts.
Sudarno Soemodimedjo, deputy chief of the Bekasi FKUB, told The Jakarta Post in February that even if a church construction committee gained the approval of 60 local residents, the FKUB would not issue a letter of recommendation if there were any public objections.
“The SKB orders us to maintain public order, which means we have to refuse the establishment of a house of worship we believe may trigger a conflict in the future,” he said.
As a result, many Christians meet in unrecognized worship venues, giving Muslim groups legal grounds to oppose church gatherings.
“If the SKB was applied consistently, many mosques that were built without permits would have to close,” Timorason told Compass.
The government wants each new settlement to have a place of worship, he added, “but it’s always a mosque. There should be one of each to be fair.”
“Violations against freedom of religion remain rampant [in Indonesia],” confirmed the chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, who goes by the single name of Hendardi, at a press conference announcing the release of its January 2010 “Report on the Condition of Religious and Faith Freedom in Indonesia.”
“This is mostly because the government is half-hearted in its upholding of the right to worship,” he said.
Of 139 violations recorded by the institute last year, West Java took first place with 57 incidents, followed closely by Jakarta at 38.
Report from Compass Direct News
UK-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has told ANS that the “appalling human rights violations taking place in North Korea’s prison camps” will be highlighted in the European Parliament at two key events during this month (April 2010), reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.
On April 7, 2010, former North Korean prisoner Shin Dong-hyuk, Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) will give evidence at a hearing to be held by the Subcommittee on Human Rights.
One week later, a major documentary film, Kimjongilia, will be screened at the European Parliament in Brussels as part of the One World human rights festival. The film provides an extraordinary insight into the shocking realities of conditions in North Korea’s prison camps through the personal testimonies of former prisoners.
The film’s Director, Nancy C. Heikin, and author, Pierre Rigoulot, will attend the event in the European Parliament hosted by CSW and Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) at 6.30pm in the Yehudi Menuhin Room.
These initiatives are the latest steps in a growing international campaign to raise awareness of the dire situation in North Korea’s prison camps. In November 2009, CSW hosted the visit of two former North Korean prisoners to London and Brussels, who gave evidence to a hearing in the House of Commons, including personal accounts of torture, starvation and slave labor.
CSW’s Advocacy Director Tina Lambert, who will give evidence at the hearing on April 7th, said: “We are delighted that the European Parliament is turning its attention to the desperate human rights situation in North Korea. Such a focus is long overdue and much needed, and we believe the combination of the evidence provided at the hearing, and the screening of Kimjongilia a week later, will help push the humanitarian crisis in North Korea’s gulags higher up the European Union’s agenda. It is time for the EU to seriously consider ways in which the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the North Korean regime can be investigated, and the culture of impunity addressed.”
Note from Dan Wooding: As one of the few Christian journalists to ever report from inside North Korea, I totally support this campaign to raise awareness of the terrible regime and the way it treats its people, especially the many thousands of believers there who are languishing in labor camps, or are being publically executed as an example to others.
No wonder that North Korea has again as won the dubious title of the world’s worst persecutor of Christians, according to the latest ranking released by religious liberty advocates Open Doors.
The communist nation has topped the mission organization’s World Watch List for eight consecutive years because of its long history of targeting Christians for arrest, torture and murder. California-based Open Doors USA estimates that of the 200,000 North Koreans languishing in political prisons, 40,000 to 60,000 of them are Christians.
“It is certainly not a shock that North Korea is No. 1 on the list of countries where Christians face the worst persecution,” said Open Doors USA President Carl Moeller. “There is no other country in the world where Christians are persecuted in such a horrible and systematic manner. Three generations of a family are often thrown into prison when one member is incarcerated.”
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Rare protest by family of tortured child puts spotlight on abuse of Christian working poor.
LAHORE, Pakistan, January 28 (CDN) — A daring protest and a high-profile funeral here on Monday (Jan. 25) for a 12-year-old Christian girl who died from torture and malnourishment has cast a rare spotlight on abuse of the Christian poor in Pakistan.
In an uncommon challenge in the predominantly Muslim nation, the Christian parents of Shazia Bashir Masih protested police unresponsiveness to the alleged violence against their daughter by Muslim attorney Chaudhary Muhammad Naeem and his family and his attempt to buy their silence after her death. The house servant died on Friday (Jan. 22) after working eight months in Naeem’s house.
An initial medical report indicated she died gradually from blows from a blunt instrument, wounds from a sharp-edged weapon, misuse of medicines and malnourishment. Key media highlighted the case on Pakistan’s airwaves, and minority rights groups along with high-ranking Christian politicians have swooped in to help.
Initially police were unresponsive to the family’s efforts to file charges against Muslim attorney Naeem, and on Saturday (Jan. 23) they staged a protest in front of the Punjab Assembly. The power of Naeem, a former president of the Lahore Bar Association, was such that officers at Litton Road police station refused to listen to Shazia’s relatives when they tried to file a complaint to retrieve her three months ago, telling the girl’s relatives, “a case against a lawyer cannot be registered,” her uncle Rafiq Masih told Compass.
Her mother, Nasreen Bibi, told Compass Naeem came to their home on the day Shazia died and offered 30,000 rupees (US$350) to keep the death secret and to pay for burial expenses.
“I refused to accept their offer, and they went they went away hurling death threats,” she said.
Bibi, a widow who subsequently married a 70-year-old blind man, told Compass that hunger and poverty had forced her to send her daughter to work at Naeem’s house for 1,000 rupees per month (US$12) – the family’s only source of income. Two older daughters are married, and she still cares for a 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son living at home.
Rafiq Masih said Naeem illegally kept Shazia at his house, forced her to work long hours and summarily refused family requests to see her. Three months ago, Masih said, Naeem allowed him and Shazia’s mother to see her for five minutes, and the girl complained that Naeem and his son were raping her. Shazia also told them that Naeem, his wife and sister-in-law were beating her and threatening to harm her if she tried to escape.
Enraged, Naeem promptly asked him and Shazia’s mother to leave, Masih said.
“We tried to bring Shazia with us back home,” he said, “but Naeem flatly refused to let Shazia go, and he cruelly and inhumanely grabbed her hair and dragged her inside the house. He returned to threaten us with dire consequences if we tried to file a case against him for keeping Shazia at his home as a bonded laborer.”
Masih and Bibi then went to the Litton Road police station to try to get Naeem to release Shazia, and it was then that duty officers deliberately offered the misinformation that a case could not be made against a lawyer, they said.
A Muslim neighbor of Naeem, Shaukat Ali Agha, told Compass that Naeem tortured Shazia.
“Often that little girl’s cries for mercy could be heard from the residence of the lawyer during the dead of night,” Agha said. “And whenever Shazia requested some food, she got thrashed badly by his wife, son and sister-in-law. One day Shazia was viciously beaten when, forced by starvation, she could not resist picking up a small piece of sugar cane from the lawn of Naeem’s residence to chew.”
As Shazia’s condition deteriorated, Naeem released her to the family and they took her to Jinnah Hospital Lahore on Jan. 19. After fighting for her life there for three days, she succumbed to her injuries and critically malnourished condition, her mother said.
Doctors at the hospital told Compass they found 18 wounds on her body: 13 from a blunt instrument, and five from a “sharp-edged weapon.”
A high-ranking investigating official told Compass that Naeem had given contrary statements under questioning. The police official said that Naeem initially stated that Shazia had fallen down some stairs and died. The police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Naeem quickly changed his statement, saying she had stolen food from the refrigerator and therefore was beaten. The official added that Naeem also said Shazia was insane, disobedient and stubborn, and “therefore she had gotten thrashed and died.”
Doctors at Mayo Hospital Morgue have taken blood and tissue samples from Shazia’s liver, stomach and kidneys and sent them to the Chief Chemical Examiner’s Forensic Lab in Islamabad to determine the official causes of death, officials said.
Family Beaten in Court
On Saturday (Jan. 23) Shazia’s family, along with many other Christians and Muslims, protested outside the Punjab Assembly for three hours, according to rights groups. Key television channels covered police inaction in the face of the violent death, and several high-profile politicians pledged their support, including Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. He promised to give the family 500,000 rupees (US$5,835) after Pakistani Minister of Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti announced a gift of the same amount to compensate the family.
Only after this public pressure did police file a First Information Report, and Naeem and six others, including family members, were arrested earlier this week. Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif reportedly visited the family, promising justice.
The Lahore High Court took up the case on Tuesday (Jan. 26) and ordered police to conclude investigations within 14 days, but none of the high-level action seemed to matter at a hearing that day at District and Sessions Court Lahore, at which Naeem and his accusers were present. As routinely happens in cases where Christians in Pakistan accuse Muslims of wrongdoing, Compass observed as Naeem’s lawyers chanted slogans against Shazia’s family, threatened them and beat them – including Bibi and her blind husband – driving them from the courtroom.
Compass witnessed the Muslim attorneys yelling chants against local media and Christianity, as well. Naeem was neither handcuffed nor escorted by Defense A-Division Police, though he has been charged with murder.
At Shazia’s funeral on Monday at Sacred Heart Cathedral Church, Bishop of Lahore Diocese the Rt. Rev. Alexander John Malik officiated as eminent Christian politicians, human rights activists, Christian clergymen and many others gathered to pay their respects amid heavy police contingents.
After the funeral, her body was taken to her home in the Sammanabad slum of Arriya Nagar, where a throng of neighbors and Christian mourners gathered, chanting for justice. Shazia’s coffin was then taken to Miani Sahib Christian Cemetery, where she was buried amid cries and tears.
Present at the burial ceremonies were Provincial Minister of Punjab for Minorities Affairs Kamran Michael, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Bhatti, Christian members of Punjab Parliament Tahir Naveed Chaudhary and Khalil Tahir Sindhu, Bishop Albert Javed, Bishop Samuel Azariah, National Director of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement Joseph Francis and other Christian leaders.
In a joint statement issued that day in Lahore, Catholic Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha and Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Council for Justice and Peace, said that Shazia’s death was not an isolated incident, but that violence against the more than 10 million child laborers in the country is commonplace.
Report from Compass Direct News
Leader in Christian-Muslim relations accused of ‘malicious’ distribution.
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, September 15 (CDN) — A convert from Islam who has led a push for Muslim-Christian understanding in Ethiopia has been in jail for nearly four months since his arrest for “malicious” distribution of Bibles.
Christian sources in Ethiopia said that, contrary to Ethiopian law, 39-year-old Bashir Musa Ahmed has not been formally charged since his arrest on May 23 in Jijiga, capital of Somali Region Zone Five, a predominantly Muslim area in eastern Ethiopia. Zonal police arrested him after he was accused of providing Muslims with Somali-language Bibles bearing covers that resemble the Quran, the sources said.
An Ethiopian national, Ahmed is known as a bold preacher of Christianity and is credited with opening discussion of the two faiths between Christian and Muslim leaders. He is well-known in the area as a scholar of Islam, but his case has gone largely unreported in Ethiopia.
A source who requested anonymity said authorities likely are secretly planning to transfer Ahmed from his Jijiga cell to Ghagahbur jail some 200 kilometers away near the Somali border, in part to prevent other Christians from visiting him and in part because he has not been charged.
The source told Compass that Ahmed’s own relatives and tribe instigated the arrest with the intent of stopping him from spreading Christianity in the region, whose 5 million predominantly Muslim inhabitants are mainly of Somali origin.
“The Ethiopian constitution allows for religious tolerance,” said the source, “but to date Ahmed has not been taken to court. He is still in the cell now, going on the fourth month, which is quite unusual for an Ethiopian nationality and the constitutional requirements.”
For providing Bibles with cover pages resembling the Quran, Ahmed is accused of “maliciously” distributing Bibles and trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, although conversion and manifesting one’s faith are not illegal in Ethiopia. At issue is whether the Bibles with covers resembling the Quran violate copyright issues and disrespect Islam.
Christian converts in the area said the kind of Bible that Ahmed distributed is widely available on the market in Ethiopia and is commonly used by Somali Christians inside and outside of the country.
Following a recent visit to Ahmed, the source said he looked strong in faith but seemed to have lost weight and was in need of clothes.
“I am doing fine here in prison, but it is a bit unfortunate that some of my close friends who claimed to advocate and serve the persecuted Christians have not come to see me,” Ahmed told the source. “I am thankful for those who have taken their time to come and see me as well as advocate for my release.”
Sources said hostility toward those spreading faith different from Islam is a common occurrence in Muslim dominated areas of Ethiopia and neighboring countries. Christians are subject to harassment and intimidation, they said, to stem a rising number of Muslim converts.
“In God’s own time I know I will be set free,” Ahmed told the source. “Continue praying for me. I know it is God’s will for me to be here at this time and moment in life.”
Ethiopia’s constitution, laws and policies promote freedom of religion, but occasionally local authorities infringe on this right, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report. An estimated 40 to 45 percent of Ethiopia’s population belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, evangelical and Pentecostal groups make up an estimated 10 percent of the population and about 45 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, according to the report.
In Ethiopia’s federal state system, each state is autonomous in its administration, and most of those holding government positions in Somali Region Zone Five are Muslims.
Report from Compass Direct News
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.
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.
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