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

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

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

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

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

There is indeed reason to fear reprisal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News


Prison term reduced for abused niece who defended herself; family fears retaliation.

ISTANBUL, November 17 (Compass Direct News) – In prison at the age of 14 for having fatally stabbed her uncle in northern Iraq, Asya Ahmad Muhammad’s early release on Nov. 10 thanks to a juvenile court decision was overshadowed by fear of retaliation from her extended Muslim family.

Also known as Maria, the now 16-year-old Muhammad was sentenced to five years in prison for killing her paternal uncle in self-defense on July 9, 2006 when he attacked her, her mother and little brother at their family kitchen utensil store in the outskirts of Dohuk. The uncle had cut her mother with a knife and was fiercely beating them for converting to Christianity and for “shaming” the family by working in public when Muhammad stabbed him.

Clearing her of an original conviction for premeditated murder, the Erbil high court last year had reduced Muhammad’s sentence from five to three-and-a-half years, upholding an earlier decision that she was guilty of killing her uncle though she acted in defense of herself and others.

Muhammad’s lawyer, Akram Al-Najar, told Compass that following his appeal to the Dohuk juvenile court, the court earlier this month agreed to reduce her sentence to two years and four months on the basis of her good conduct and having served nearly three-quarters of her three-and-a-half year sentence.

“She deserved to be released since her behavior and attitude was excellent,” said Al-Najar. “That is why the court accepted my request and decided to reduce her punishment to two years and four months.”

Local Christians have commented that Muhammad’s sentence was light, considering that it was culturally acceptable for an uncle to beat his niece. Her jail time also meant that she didn’t have to fear reprisal attacks from her relatives.

But Muhammad’s release from prison now means a possible retaliation from extended family members for her uncle’s death, said Al-Najar.

“I am not sure she is safe right now, especially after her release, since there are still people intent on gaining revenge,” said the lawyer.


Father Threatened

Muhammad’s father, Ahmad Muhammad Abdurahman, who converted in 1998 while working in Beirut, said that in the last week family members have called him twice telling him his days of joy are numbered.

“My sisters called me, and my brother’s wife called me also [and said], ‘You are a shame. Don’t be happy in your family; we will never let you be happy in your family,’” Abdurahman told Compass.

He explained that his change in faith was grounds for an “honor” crime in his Kurdish family, and even more so now that blood had been shed. His father, a Muslim cleric, was enraged by Abdurahman’s conversion. Abdurahman’s deceased brother, Sayeed, on five occasions had tried to kill him and had also burned down his house. Abdurahman has seven brothers.

Abdurahman said that since the release of his only daughter, he has left his old home but remains in the town of Dohuk, unsure of what the next step is for his family. He said his only hope now is to come up with the “blood money” necessary to buy peace with his family for his brother’s death. The court has set this amount at 10 million Iraqi dinars (US$8,670).

Unable to keep a stable job, Abdurahman is not sure he will be able to come up with the amount, nor whether it will suffice to keep his family safe within the borders of Iraq.

“I just pray that God gives me provision to take my daughter and family to a different country,” he said. “We have now moved to a different house, but I am afraid they will come and contact me again. I want to keep my daughter and wife safe, but I don’t know how I will manage to do so.”

In a phone interview with Christian support organization Open Doors, Muhammad said her time in prison had been difficult and she was thankful to be back with her family.

“I am very glad because God gave me a miracle, and I am very happy to meet my mother and my father,” she told a representative of the organization. “My hope [is] in Jesus; I always prayed for God to comfort my mother [until] I see my mother, I see my family again.”


Relative ‘Safe Haven’

Despite the recent waves of violence in Mosul, south of Dohuk in northern Iraq, Abdurahman said that the Kurdish part of the country is still considered a safe haven for Christians, where many Christian families from Mosul have also fled in recent weeks

“Many Christians come here from Mosul and Baghdad, and the Kurdish government does a good job to protect Christians,” he said. “That’s what I see.”

He noted, however, that according to Iraqi law it is still not possible for Iraqis to change their religion on their national identification cards.

“It is my dream that one day I will be free to change my ID card,” he said. “My card now writes ‘Muslim.’ But my faith is Christian.”

Abdurahman asked for prayer as he looks for a job or a way to get out of Iraq.

“I don’t know what will come from God,” he said. “I’m not worried about that, but my family needs help, they need food and things … I’m just thanking God that he brought my sheep, my daughter, into the family again.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Doctor acquitted while two other believers remain in jail; mobs threaten their homes, families.

Istanbul, November 13 (Compass Direct News) – A Christian doctor in Pakistan jailed since May 5 on charges of “blasphemy” was acquitted last week, while another Christian and his adult daughter remained incarcerated after more than a month on charges of desecrating the Quran.

Dr. Robin Sardar of Pakistan’s Punjab province was released on Nov. 4 after his accuser said the claim that he had blasphemed Islam’s prophet Muhammad was the result of a “misunderstanding.”

“The complainant said in the court that he has, through a misunderstanding, done all these things,” said Ezra Shujaab of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), which represented Sardar.

After a thorough investigation, the court found the accusation to be baseless and freed Sardar, Shujaab said. Angry villagers and local Muslim clerics had threatened to kill Sardar if he was acquitted, and he has gone into hiding, as did his family after his incarceration six months ago. A mob bearing sticks and kerosene and chanting death threats had surrounded the family’s house at that time.

In May Dr. Sardar was taken to Punjab’s Gujranwala Central Jail after a Muslim vendor filed a blasphemy complaint with police, prompting the attacks on his house. Sardar and the vendor had reportedly clashed over whether the merchant could set up shop in front of the doctor’s clinic.

The vendor, Muhammad Rafique, had claimed that Sardar had insulted Islam’s prophet during a visit between the two men. In his written statement, Rafique had called for the death penalty for Sardar and threatened that local Muslims would riot if police did not arrest him.

Under article 295-C of the Pakistani Penal Code, blasphemy against Muhammad merits death.


Father-Daughter Jailing

As happened to Sardar, violent Muslim mobs also attacked the home of Gulsher Masih after his daughter was accused of desecrating the Quran on Oct. 9 in the village of Tehsil Chak Jhumra.

Both he and his daughter, 25-year-old Sandal Gulsher, have been detained in Faisalabad since Oct. 10, and the rest of the family has gone into hiding.

A mob numbering in the hundreds gathered at the house of Masih last month armed with sticks, stones and bottles of kerosene after accusations that he had encouraged his daughter to tear pages from the Quran were broadcast over loudspeakers from a mosque.

“A mob came and they stoned their house, and they put the kerosene oil on the whole house to put it on fire,” said Yousef Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace. “However, just before that the police came in.”

Initially the whole family was taken into protective custody by police from the nearby Faisalabad station.

Under pressure from the mob, police on Oct. 10 charged Masih’s daughter – and Masih himself, for defending her – with violating section 295-B of the Pakistani Penal Code, which prescribes life imprisonment for those convicted of desecrating the Quran.

“When on the 10th the police were ready to register the FIR, I was there and more than 100 Muslim people were forcing the police … [saying] ‘We want Gulsher and his daughter to be hanged,’” said Quaiser Felix, a journalist for Asia News.

Masih and his daughter remain in custody and await a court hearing. They will plead innocent and deny all charges, said Shujaab, adding, “They did nothing.”

The rest of the family is in hiding, unable to return home due to fears of reprisal.

“It is very common in Pakistan that when a Christian person is caught or booked under blasphemy laws, then even if the court releases him or her they have to migrate from the area,” said Benjamin. “It is dangerous; they cannot come back to the community openly.”

Both Sardar and Gulsher’s families now face the prospect of never returning to their home towns, said Shujaab of APMA.

“Sardar, though he was acquitted, he cannot live in the home where he was residing,” said Shujaab. “They have to live like refugees.”

Although false blasphemy charges are leveled at Muslims as well as Christians in Pakistan, religious differences are often a motivating factor for the accusations.

“Muslims become challenged by these people, those who are somewhat established Christians,” said Shujaab. “[Out of] jealousy they want to throw these people out of the villages. They have involved them so that they should not live there in that village.”  

Report from Compass Direct News