INDIA: CHRISTIANS FALSELY ACCUSED IN CLAN-FIGHT MURDER


Hindus opposed to pastor’s evangelistic efforts name him, three others.

NEW DELHI, August 31 (Compass Direct News) – Hindus opposed to a pastor in a village in Madhya Pradesh, India have falsely charged him and three other Christians in the murder of a young man killed in a gang fight between two clans, according to area Christians.

Pastor Kamlesh Tahed, 32, of Mehendi Kheda village, Jhabua district, told Compass he was not even in the village on Aug. 8, the day 22-year-old Roop Singh Baria was killed. Pastor Tahed, who spent 20 days in jail on false charges of “forcible conversion” in 2001 before a court declared him innocent, is in hiding.

“I was away in another village to pray for a sick person the day the murder took place,” Pastor Tahed told Compass.

Three other Christians from his clan – Kasna Tahed, 25, Ramesh Tahed, 26, and Vasna Tahed, 36 – are in police custody, also charged in the murder of Baria, of nearby Negadia village, even though they were not present at the site of the melee either, Pastor Tahed said.

“We four had nothing to do with the fight and murder,” Pastor Tahed told Compass. “The report that was filed in the police station had not only the names of the 13 suspects involved in the fight, but also the four Christians who were not even present at the site of the fight.”

He added that 10 of the 13 Hindus charged are in custody, and three are on “the run.”

All 17 men are booked under all the same charges – murder, rioting, rioting with a deadly weapon and unlawful assembly – with the courts to determine which charges actually apply to which suspects.

The murder came amid a mob fight after the Baria clan attacked the Tahed clan over 1,000 rupees (US$20) that one of the Tahed family members had borrowed, area Christians said. Members of the Baria clan filed the First Information Report (FIR) on the melee and named Pastor Tahed because he is a Christian leader, said another area pastor who has suffered the same fate.

Pastor Bahadur Baria of the same village’s opposing clan told Compass that in all previous conflicts – personal, religious or social – sympathizers of Hindu extremists falsely accuse area Christians as well as bait them into conflicts.

“There are RSS [Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang] sympathizers living in both villages,” Pastor Baria said, “and they have inflamed the tribal Hindus to hook the Christian families into all rioting, murder, and other cases in the village so that the Christians are troubled from every side.”

Pastor Baria said what happened to Pastor Tahed also has happened to him; a member of the Tahed clan was murdered by a Baria clan gang, and his name appeared in the FIR. Only after a costly court process was he exonerated from murder charges, he said.

“This has not been once but every time something happens, the Christians are dragged into it,” he said.

Pastor Tahed said he used to participate in the clan conflicts before becoming a Christian.

“I once was one of them, but in the 20 years since I became a Christian, they have been dragging me into false cases and hate me for my work of evangelism,” he said. “They hooked me into a similar case in 2001 with additional charges of ‘forceful conversions,’ and I was behind bars for 20 days. Finally the court set me free as I was proved innocent.”

While Christian friends search for a lawyer to represent him and the three other Christians, Pastor Tahed has fled the area.

“These almost regular court procedures involve a lot of money, and being an evangelist with no fixed source of income, I cannot afford them,” he said.

In retaliation for the murder of Roop Singh Baria, two days later the Baria clan set on fire 12 houses of the Tahed clan, he added.

Pastor Tahed has a small plot of farmland as the only source of income by which he supports his wife, six children, parents and four children of his deceased elder brother, he said. Of the other three Christians charged, Kasna Tahed has three children, Ramesh Tahed has two and Vasna Tahed has three.

For the security of the families left behind, four police guards are posted Mehendi Kheda village and four at Negadia village.

“This is to prevent further mishaps in both the clans,” Pastor Tahed said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

INDIA: CHRISTIANS DISPUTE POLICE THEORY ON PRIEST’S DEATH


Hindu extremists suspected in area known for anti-Christian violence.

NEW DELHI, August 3 (Compass Direct News) – The suspicious death of a 39-year-old priest in the southern state of Karnataka has further terrified Christians living in an area known for anti-Christian violence, but police indicate that they doubt it is a homicide.

The body of the parish priest of St. Mary’s Church, the Rev. James Mukalel was found lying near his motorbike on a remote roadside in Belthangady sub-district near Mangalore early last Thursday (July 30). After family members reportedly sought a second autopsy that delayed interment, the priest’s body was buried on Saturday (July 25) with the cause of death still unsolved.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) maintains that Mukalel, from Belthangady’s Syro-Malabar diocese in Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district, was killed.

“According to Fr. Joseph Valiaparambil, vicar general and spokesperson of the diocese of Belthangady, the death of the priest appears to be suspicious and unnatural,” officials at CBCI said in a statement, “as his body was found lying on the roadside near the motorbike which he was riding, and there were no clothes on his body.”

Alluding to Hindu nationalist extremists, the CBCI affirmed that “such killers represent no religious community but only a section which promotes the cult of violence, whose inhuman acts only further widen the gap between religious communities, thus aggravating the agony of the even larger human family.”

The Catholic Church demanded that the alleged killers be brought to justice, but police said Mukalel may have died from food poisoning. Superintendent of Police of Dakshina Kannada district Subramayeshwar Rao told Compass that police had only two theories on the cause of death.

“Although I have not seen the autopsy report, I learned from the forensic surgeons that Fr. James Mukalel died of poisoning – most likely naturally because of food poisoning, or he was poisoned.”

There were no external marks of injury or signs of suffocation, Rao added. The diocesan social work director had reportedly said there were signs of suffocation on the body.

Asked why Mukalel’s body was found nearly naked, Rao said only that Mukalel had vomited and passed a stool before his death.

“The body was found without any clothes, with only underwear, which had been pulled down the legs,” Rao said. “I don’t know why some people are thinking like that [that he was killed and for religious reasons].”

The Karnataka-based Global Council of Indian Christians has demanded an inquiry by the federal Central Bureau of Investigation.

Two Autopsies

Mukalel, from Kannur district in the neighboring state of Kerala, was recently assigned to St. Mary’s Church.

According to the CBCI, Mukalel was killed as he returned to his parish in the Kutrupady area after attending the funeral of a parish priest in the adjacent Charmadi village around 9 p.m. on Wednesday (July 29).

On Friday (July 31) the priest’s body was taken to Government Wenlock Hospital in Mangalore, district headquarters of Dakshina Kannada district, after which the Catholic Church sent the body for last rites to St. Sebastian’s Church in Vellad, in Kerala state’s Kannur district.

A funeral service was held at St. Sebastian’s Church on Saturday (Aug. 1), but the body was not buried. It was instead taken to the Government Medical College at Kozhikode in Kerala for another autopsy because Mukalel’s parents and brother, along with other close relatives, felt it was not a natural death, Indo-Asian News Service reported.

Police official Rao said he had not been apprised of a second autopsy. “I heard about it in the news,” he said. “There is no legal provision for a second autopsy.”

Reports of the two autopsies were awaited at press time. The case, registered as a suspicious unnatural death under Section 174 C of Criminal Procedure Code, will be processed only after autopsy reports are completed.

Past Attacks

The minority Muslim and Christian communities have faced numerous attacks in Dakshina Kannada district in general and in Mangalore in particular.

Most recently, The Hindu reported that on the evening of May 16, the day general election results were announced, a group of people celebrating the victory of Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Nalin Kumar Kateel from Dakshina Kannada attacked four Muslim families with sticks, soda bottles, cricket bats and cycle chains in the Nettrakere area in the Bantwal area in Mangalore.

In August-September of last year, at least 28 attacks on churches were reported in Dakshina Kannada district, mainly in Mangalore. According to a report by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), in every case, the attackers were from Hindu nationalist extremist groups like the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Jagaran Vedike or the Sri Rama Sene.

The attacks were seen as fallout from violence in Kandhamal district in the eastern state of Orissa, where Maoists on Aug. 23 killed a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or the VHP, whose youth wing is the Bajrang Dal), Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, for which Christians were wrongly blamed.

In Karnataka, Hindu nationalists also based their violence on alleged conversions of Hindus to Christianity and to protest a booklet, which they said was “derogatory” to Hindu gods, published by a Christian group, New Life Fellowship Trust.

Mangalore police were also suspected of having played a role in the attacks.

“What was striking about these attacks, especially in Mangalore, is that the police acted in tandem with the Bajrang Dal,” said the PUCL report, entitled, “From Kandhamal to Karavali: The Ugly Face of Sangh Parivar” released in March.

“The pattern we observed was that the Bajrang Dal would attack Christian places and cause injury to persons and damage to property,” according to the report. “Then the police would step in, not to chase and arrest the assailants, but ostensibly to prevent any violent retaliation by the Christians. And in the course of the alleged preventive activity, they would assault the Christians further.”

A report by the National Minorities Commission also said that in the first week of the attacks on churches, police arrested more Christians, 47, than extremists from the Bajrang Dal, 36.

Karnataka is ruled by the BJP, which came to power for the first time in the state in alliance with a regional party, the Janata Dal Secular, in February 2006. In May 2008, it won the state assembly elections and became the one-party ruler of the state.

Report from Compass Direct News 

PAKISTAN: ISLAMIC RADICALS STORM ‘BLASPHEMY’ HEARING


Christian couple on trial; member of prosecution team threatens to kill wife.

ISTANBUL, May 29 (Compass Direct News) – Radical Pakistani Muslims in a town outside of Lahore this month overran a courtroom in hopes of swaying a judge in a “blasphemy” case against a Christian couple, and a member of the prosecution later threatened to kill the wife.

Some 50 molvis (Muslim clergy) on May 14 burst into the courtroom in Mustafabad, where a bail hearing was taking place in the case against Munir Masih and his wife Ruqiya Bibi, according to the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

“Nobody could stop them as they rushed into the court,” said CLAAS’s Tahir Gull, sole representative for the accused. “They said, ‘No non-Muslim has the right to keep a Quran in his house, they have done this so they are liable to be punished.’”

Masih and Bibi, both in their 30s, were originally accused under section 295-B of Pakistan’s penal code with defiling the Quran by touching it with unwashed hands on Dec. 8 of last year. Masih was taken to prison and remained there until Jan. 22, when a Muslim neighbor who had asked him to store some of his possessions, including his Quran, testified on his behalf and the case was dropped.

The complainant, Mohammad Nawaz, subsequently filed another accusation on Feb. 12, this time under 295-C, blasphemy against Muhammad, Islam’s prophet. This charge carries a death sentence, whereas defiling the Quran calls for life imprisonment.

Despite pressure from the crowd of clerics, Judge Shafqat Ali – also a molvi – granted the couple bail. Following the hearing, however, a member of the prosecution team approached Bibi outside the courtroom and threatened to kill her.

“Ruqiya was waiting outside the court,” said Gull, “and one man came and said, ‘Whatever the decision, we will kill you.’”

A prosecution lawyer read portions of the Quran while presenting his case, he added.

“He was not explaining the law in which the accused were charged,” said Gull. “He was trying to influence the court religiously.”

Charges of blasphemy are common in Pakistan and particularly incendiary, often leading to strong shows of religious zeal. It is not uncommon for sections 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistani penal code to be invoked in retaliation for personal grievances.

“It is very easy to grab any person for religious reasons,” said Parvez Choudhry, chairman of Legal Aid for the Destitute and Settlement, who specialize in blasphemy cases. “There are many personal cases involving property, or money, or business that motivate the complainant against the accused person. All the cases are falsely charged.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have come under heavy fire from international rights groups. Any private citizen can file blasphemy charges, destroying reputation and livelihood. The charge can possibly lead to the death penalty in the conservative Islamic country.

Masih, who before his initial arrest had been a day laborer, is no longer able to find work due to the stigma of the blasphemy accusation.

“There is a need to repeal these sections [295-B and 295-C],” said Choudhry. “This is considered a draconian law.”

Section 295-C carries a death sentence for anyone found “by words or visible representation or by an imputation or insinuation, directly or indirectly, [to have] defiled the name of the Muhammad of Islam.”

Choudhry suggested that just correcting the vagueness of this definition would go a long way toward reducing its frequent misuse.

“The word ‘indirect’ should be repealed – this is wrong, unconstitutional,” he said. “They have no value in the Evidence Act of Pakistan. The Evidence Act states that there needs to be direct evidence for a conviction.”

The next court date has not yet been assigned, but Gull said he is confident about securing an acquittal.

“We have a good case on our side,” he told Compass. “I am very optimistic.”

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: LAWYER THREATENS TO KILL CHRISTIAN CHARGED WITH ‘BLASPHEMY’


Bail denied to Christian activist for his own safety; judge also under fire.

ISTANBUL, May 6 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani Christian charged with abetting blasphemy against Islam was denied bail for his own safety last week after an Islamist lawyer allegedly threatened his life in a court hearing.

Hector Aleem, 51, remains in Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi, near Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad. Judge Mustafa Tanveer dismissed his bail application at a court session on Thursday (April 30).

“If the judge does not punish Aleem according to the law, then [we] will kill him ourselves,” said Tariq Dhamal, an attorney for the unnamed complainant, according to a report by the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

Police arrested Aleem last November when a Muslim scholar received a text message insulting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Authorities charged Aleem with blasphemy and abetting blasphemy, sections 295(c) and 109(bb) respectively of the Pakistani criminal code.

Court evidence shows the text message came from an unlisted phone number, not Aleem’s. At an April 25 hearing, Investigating Officer Zafer Ikbal said he had concluded that evidence proved Aleem’s innocence. Ikbal’s investigation, along with a February judicial decision, resulted in charges of blaspheming Islam being dropped. The charge of abetting blasphemy still stands.

Nevertheless, at the April 25 hearing prosecuting attorneys asserted that Aleem was guilty of blasphemy on grounds that “he is a Christian and can make blasphemous comments about the prophet Muhammad,” according to Katherine Sapna, a field officer for CLAAS.

Aleem’s lawyer, Malik Tafik, said he has filed for upcoming hearings to be closed to the public for fear that Muslim fanatics could try to kill his Christian client. Tafik will present another bail application in the high court of Islamabad on May 14.

Tafik, a Muslim, has come under pressure from the Rawalpindi Bar for taking on the case of a Christian accused of blasphemy. The bar has filed an application against him for handling the case.

Dhamal, the lawyer who allegedly made the death threat against Aleem, is a member of Sunni Tehreek, an Islamist political movement involved in violent sectarian clashes in the last decade.

In the April 25 hearing, five lawyers and 180 Islamist protestors gathered around the courthouse. Tafik said he believes the crowds hoped to intimidate the judge into declaring Aleem guilty. More than 100 protestors have congregated at previous hearings, shouting that Aleem’s life would not be spared and he should be handed over to the police.

Tafik said the judge is afraid to rule in favor of Aleem for fear of his life from Rawalpindi Islamists.

“The judge is under pressure and not deciding the case based on merits,” Tafik said. “He is ready to hear on merits, but the lawyers are just [acting] on the basis of Islamization.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have come under heavy fire from international rights groups. Any private citizen can file blasphemy charges, and they have been used in petty disputes as a means of retaliation as they can destroy reputation, livelihood and possibly lead to the death penalty in the conservative Islamic country.

Before his arrest, Aleem led human rights campaigns on behalf of Christians, particularly a land dispute between a congregation and the Rawalpindi Water and Sanitation Agency, which wanted to demolish their church building.

More Muslims than Christians are charged with blasphemy in Pakistan. In 2008 there were 13 cases registered against Muslims in Punjab province, where Aleem resides, and only six against Christians.

Boy Dies

Insulting Islam is a dangerous activity in the conservative nation of 170 million, but with the spread of the Taliban, non-Muslims fear their very existence will make them a target to fundamentalists.

On April 22 Christians in Taiser town, near Karachi, noticed on the walls of their church graffiti that read, “Long Live the Taliban” and calls for Christians to either convert to Islam or pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia (Islamic law) paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert.

Armed men arrived on the scene and opened fire on Christians who were erasing the graffiti, injuring five. An 11-year-old boy shot in the attack, Irfan Masih, has reportedly since died from his injuries (see “Taliban-Inspired Attacks Hit Christians,” April 27).

Security forces fear that sectarian violence could erupt in the port city of Karachi. They have banned public gatherings and processions, according to Release International aid agency.

Report from Compass Direct News

TURKEY: LOCAL OFFICIALS’ ROLE EMERGES IN MALATYA MURDERS


Former police commander, university researcher, suspected ringleader’s father testify.

MALATYA, Turkey, April 15 (Compass Direct News) – Two years after the murder of three Christians in this city in southeastern Turkey, lawyers at a hearing here on Monday (April 13) uncovered important information on the role that local security forces played in the slaughter.

At the 16th hearing of the murder case at the Malatya Third Criminal Court, plaintiff attorneys called a heavy slate of witnesses, including Mehmet Ulger, the gendarmerie commander of Malatya province during the April 2007 murders who was arrested on March 12 for his alleged connection to a political conspiracy, and Ruhi Abat, a theology instructor at the local Ismet Inonu University.

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German Christian, Tilmann Geske, were tied up and stabbed to death at Zirve Publishing Co. offices on April 18, 2007. Plaintiff attorneys have moved the focus of the trial away from the five suspects – Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, Abuzer Yildirim, and alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin – to local officials believed to be liaisons or masterminds of the murders.

The retired gendarmerie commander and the theology researcher have suspected links to the crime. In January an anonymous letter sent to Turkish churches and obtained by the media claimed that then-commander Ulger instigated the murders and directed Abat to prepare arguments against missionary activity.

According to phone records, Abat made 1,415 telephone calls to gendarmerie intelligence forces in the six-month period prior to the 2007 murders. During his cross examination, he told the courtroom that the frequent contact resulted from gendarmerie requesting information on his research of local missionary activity.

Abat was part of a team of six researchers that focused on the social effects of missionary activity within the Malatya region.

“The information I gave the police and gendarmerie was aimed at answering the criticisms that missionaries had about Islam,” he said.

When plaintiff attorneys asked Ulger if this level of communication was typical, the former gendarmerie commander said that they communicated on other issues such as translating Arabic documents and further teaching engagements. But lawyers said this level of communication was unusual.

“He called the gendarmerie the equivalent of 10 times a day, seven days a week, which suggests something abnormal going on,” said plaintiff attorney Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “You wouldn’t talk that much to your mother.”

In a heated exchange at the end of the hearing, Ozkan Yucel, plaintiff attorney representing the families of the victims, pressed Ulger to answer whether he considered Christian missionary activity in Turkey to be a crime.

Avoiding a direct answer, Ulger said no such crime existed in Turkey’s penal system, but that gendarmerie classified such activity as “extreme right-wing.”

“The gendarmerie considers this to be the same [level of extremism] as radical Islamic activity,” he said.

 

Suspected Ringleader’s Family Testifies

Onur Dulkadir, a cousin and former classmate of Gunaydin, the suspected ringleader, testified on his interactions with Gunaydin and Malatya’s local Christian community prior to the murders.

Dulkadir claimed that a few months before the crime, he and Gunaydin attended a Christian meeting at a Malatya hotel where approximately 50 people were in attendance. He said they left when someone handed him a brochure about “missionary activity.”

Dulkadir told the court that after they left, Gunaydin said, “I am watching how they structure themselves,” and, “Very soon I am going to be rich.” In past hearings, Gunaydin claimed the Turkish state had promised him support if he would carry out the attacks successfully.

Gunaydin’s father, Mustafa Gunaydin, testified at the hearing that he didn’t believe his son had led the group of five to commit the grisly murder of the three Christians, two of them converts from Islam.

“I went once a week to the jail to see my son, and every time I spoke with my son I tried to bring out the identity of those behind the murders,” said Mustafa Gunaydin. “He swore to me there was nobody behind it . . . I still believe my son couldn’t have done anything. My child is afraid of blood.”

Mustafa Gunaydin works as a technician at Ismet Inonu University. Plaintiff attorneys asked him if he was acquainted with professor Fatih Hilmioglu, recently jailed in a mass arrest of professors associated with a national conspiracy known as Ergenekon. He replied that he knew Hilmioglu, but that he also knew about 70 percent of the university personnel and did not have a close friendship with the arrested professor.

The prosecuting attorneys have frequently contended that Ergenekon, a loose collection of ultra-nationalist generals, businessmen, mafia and journalists who planned to engineer domestic chaos and overthrow the Turkish government, instigated Emre Gunaydin to commit the murders.

Ulger was arrested as part of the Turkish state’s investigations into Ergenekon.

 

Cryptic Comments

Among Emre Gunaydin’s most prominent suspect links to Ergenekon is his jailed former co-worker Varol Bulent Aral, who was arrested in February for being a possible liaison between the five youths on trial for the murders and the true masterminds.

Hamit Ozpolat, owner of a newspaper and radio station in Adiyaman, testified at the hearing that Aral made cryptic comments in regard to his connections with the criminal organization. When Aral approached Ozpolat for a job at one of his news outlets, he declined his application, which he said resulted in Aral shouting threats against him. When police came, Ozpolat testified, Aral shouted, “You can’t do anything to me, I am a member of the deep state.”

Plaintiff attorneys have suspected a connection between the Malatya murder case and Ergenekon for several months, attempting to merge the two cases since last August.

But in a strange turn, the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) has issued a report claiming that Ergenekon and Christian missionary agencies were working together to destroy the Turkish nation. This claim would seem to contradict older Ergenekon documents that make reference to church members in Izmir, Mersin and Trabzon, three Turkish cities where Christians were attacked or killed in the following years.

Malatya plaintiff attorneys told Compass the theory of Christians wanting to destroy Turkey exists in the national consciousness but has no basis in reality.

“One of the core activities of Ergenekon is to struggle against missionary activity,” plaintiff attorney Cengiz said. “They are very hostile against missionary activities, as they see them as an extension of the external enemies in Turkey.”

On Monday (April 13), police raided the home of professor Turkan Saylan, 74-year old president of the Association for Support of Progressive Life (CYDD) and a cancer patient. The seven-hour raid took place on the basis of a MIT report stating her organization had received funds from the American Board, the oldest organization in Turkey with missionary status. The American Board is known in Turkey for building schools and hospitals and funding development projects.

Police reportedly raided her home and office in an attempt to find information linking CYDD finances to the American Board and proselytizing activities. Saylan’s organization has opened three court cases against MIT for past accusations of missionary activities.

In an online report published by Haber50 today, Saylan said that her premises were raided as retaliation for the cases opened against MIT, which for years has been trying to destroy her organization’s reputation in the press.

In addition, the report says Yasar Yaser, president of the Health and Education Association (SEV), used her organization’s printing press in order to produce Bibles.

“The terrible truth is some media, including some Muslim newspapers, were very eager to cover this story,” plaintiff attorney Cengiz said. He emphasized that suspicions of Christian groups in Turkey having such a subversive agenda were baseless.

This Saturday (April 18) will mark the second anniversary of the stabbing deaths of the three Christians. Churches across Turkey will commemorate the event through special services, and the Turkish Protestant Alliance has designated the day as an international day of prayer.

The next hearing of the case is scheduled to take place on May 22.

Report from Compass News Direct

EGYPT: COPTIC CHURCH ISSUES FIRST CONVERSION CERTIFICATE


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

SUDAN: SUPPORT FOR PRESIDENT LEADS TO ATTACKS ON CHURCHES


Militia destroys church building in the Nuba Mountains

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 8 (Compass Direct News) — Support for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in the wake of an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant is fast turning into orchestrated attacks on Christians.

A thatched-grass building in the Nuba Mountains village of Chat, used by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Sudanese Church of Christ, is one of the latest targets of such attacks.

The building was destroyed by fire on March 27 by a suspected government militia. Pro-Bashir mobs have attacked those they believe support the ICC’s determination to prosecute Bashir for atrocities in the Darfur region.

As support for President Bashir escalates, especially in the North, the church faces one of the worst threats to its existence in the recent past. Today, it struggles simply to survive.

Drivers on the streets of Khartoum, even the road leading toward the airport, see huge pictures of Bashir staring down from billboards with pro-Bashir messages, such as “Mr. President, we are with you” and “You are not alone.”

Kuwa Shamal, acting director of the Sudanese Church of Christ, says of the billboard campaign: “I wish the same government assuring support to the president could have the same encouraging message for the struggling church.”

 

Chief Accused of Leading Attack

The Sudanese Church of Christ was forced to conclude a morning worship service prematurely on March 27 when a hostile group attacked. An eyewitness said this militia was led by the area chief, Kafi Tahir, who supports an Islamist agenda and is said to receive government support.

The eyewitness, a Muslim who requested anonymity, said the chief and his accomplices were armed. Helpless church members fled the structure, which had a capacity of about 500. The chief then ordered his accomplices to set the church ablaze and church members ran for their lives, the eyewitness said.

“The Sudanese Church of Christ is concerned of the government move to frustrate the activities of the churches in Nuba Mountains,” said Barnabas Maitias, president of the Sudanese Church of Christ. “It is alleged that the Ministry of Defense has distributed a number of weapons to individuals who are out to support Islamic agenda and the government in Nuba Mountains, including Chief Kafi Tahir of Chat village, who recently led a group of unknown people to destroy our church.”

Indeed, many Christians are worried as a new wave of intolerance sweeps the region. The intolerance could worsen as ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo continues to press for a court trial of Bashir.

Matta Mubarak, general secretary of the Sudanese Church of Christ, told Compass that the villagers of Chat have previously opposed the chief, who then destroyed the church building in retaliation.

“The chief fled for his life to Kadugli and he is living a comfortable life. As a result, justice for the church in Nuba Mountains has been thrown out of the window,” Mubarak said. “What kind of a world are we living in, where criminals are not charged? The church feels that the Sudanese government is not concerned about the rights of Christians in the North. The future of the church in the North is uncertain.”

 

Worshiping Without Buildings or Land

For a month now, members of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church have worshiped outdoors and without the help of an evangelist who had led them.

Shamal said that evangelist Aburahaman Tai of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was attacked in early March outside the church by the same group that later destroyed the building.

“He was beaten and sustained head injuries and was treated at a local dispensary before being discharged,” Shamal said. “He is still recovering. Indeed, it is a big blow to the church, to have no place to worship and to lack a pastor. This is a big tragedy.”

Mubarak said that in some parts of Sudan, Islam has conquered the church. “In Northern Sudan, at a place called Dongola, the church building has been converted into a mosque and the few Christians forced to convert to Islam,” Mubarak said.

Church struggles extend even to land ownership. Maitias told Compass that after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, the Sudan Inter-religious Council petitioned the government for a piece of land to be allocated to the church for worship. He said three churches were allowed to apply for land allocation for the purpose of building houses of worship: the Sudanese Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church of Sudan and the Catholic Church.

But to their surprise, the offer was given with some conditions: every year, the government must cross-check church operations and is free to repossess land at will.

“We as the church find our free operation not guaranteed,” Maitias said.

Andrea Amet Ubiu, who works with the Sudan Council of Churches in Khartoum, bought a piece of land from Zinab Adut in 1994 and constructed a temporary house at Salma village, which is about two miles from Khartoum.

“In 2005 the government began demolishing temporary structures in the area with a view of carrying out reallocations. To my surprise, when this [reallocation] was done, I was left out and was informed that the land I bought was not legitimate since the lady who sold the land to me was not entitled to it because she had no husband or children,” Ubiu said.

“But I knew it was a calculated move by the local authorities to deny me the land, because all along I had not supported the government before the signing of the peace agreement between the North and the South,” Ubiu added. “Life for me in Salma has been harsh, so I decided to forget the issue of the land and moved to a new location called Hagyouf area, five kilometers [three miles] from the town center.”

Maitias sees such discrimination as common for Christians in northern Sudan.

“Here in the North, the Church is discriminated [against] in almost everything, even including education,” Maitias said. “Christian institutions are not recognized by the government. Christian religious education is not taught in government schools. Christian programs are only given less than three hours in the national media on Sundays and Christian workers given only two hours for Sunday worship. Christmas celebrations are restricted to a day for celebrations, like marching with police security.”

Christians who wish to operate a restaurant during Ramadan must obtain a permit from authorities. “We always ask ourselves, why all this? Our identity as Christians is an anathema,” Maitias said. “Instead, the government prefers calling us ‘non-Muslims.’”

A dozen non-governmental organizations have been expelled from the country because of their vocal opposition to human rights abuses in Darfur.  

Report from Compass Direct News

UZBEKISTAN GOVERNMENT INTERFERENCE SLOWS CHURCH GROWTH


Three Christians have each been sentenced to 15 days in prison in the Andijan region of eastern Uzbekistan after police raided a home. Uzbekistan is located in Central Asia, north of Afghanistan, reports MNN.

According to Forum 18 News, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation, three additional Protestants at the house were detained in a homeless center for between four and eleven days, for not having their identification documents with them.

In a separate case, a Baptist in the capital city of Tashkent was given a ten-day prison sentence after approximately 20 officials from various state agencies — including the Presidential Administration — raided a prayer meeting in a registered church.

Officials told church members that they need special permission for any services aside from those on Sundays, though Forum 18 said the news service can’t find any legal requirement for this alleged regulation.

Vice President of Russian Ministries Sergey Rakhuba says they have work in the region, and he confirms that attacks against Christians are on the increase. “It looks like officials are targeting everybody who is talking about their faith, claiming that they are there to destroy their country.”

Rakhuba says these aren’t isolated cases of oppression. He says it’s happening all over the country. “People we work with are sending us messages saying that this is the beginning of another wave of very intense and very serious persecution.”

Ironically this has nothing to do with a new religion law in Uzbekistan, according to Rakhuba. “The believers were in their homes. They were in their churches. They were doing what their constitution allows. They were praying and reading the Bible. But government officials arrested them under their terrorist act or regulation, implying that they’re trying to [create an uprising] against their country, which it totally not true.”

Rakhuba says authorities are even trying to fabricate violations of the religion law. “They will stop somebody in the car, or arrest somebody on the streets, and then they plant New Testaments or Bibles or other literature, claiming that they were trying to distribute it on the streets, when they’re not trying to do that.”

He says even the long time Russian Baptist are having difficulties in the country.

Because the government’s taking such a hard stand on evangelical Christians, the church has gone underground. “That’s really who they are after. The more pressure they create, the more success we see in the underground movement, just like any other place on earth.”

Rakhuba reports that the underground church movement is growing like wildfire. Russian Ministries’ Schools Without Walls program has been created to work well in underground situations — training the next generation church leaders. “You don’t have to have schools or classrooms or schedules or approvals. You just have to have a leader” who’s willing to go and train.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

COLOMBIA: SIX MONTHS LATER, PASTOR STILL MISSING


The Rev. William Reyes’ wife awaits word, fears for safety of her children.

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, March 23 (Compass Direct News) – Six months after the disappearance in Colombia of the Rev. William Reyes of Maicao, La Guajira, no one knows what happened to him.

This week marks six months of agonizing uncertainty for the family of Rev. Reyes. On Sept. 25, 2008, the pastor of Light and Truth Inter-American Church disappeared en route home from a ministers’ meeting in Valledupar, a city in the neighboring department (state) of Cesar.

Family members and friends fear that guerrilla fighters kidnapped the veteran minister; they have not seen or heard from him since his disappearance. Rev. Reyes and colleagues in the Fraternity of Evangelical Pastors of Maicao had received repeated threats from illegal armed groups operating in the La Guajira peninsula since March 2008.

Guerrillas or their paramilitary rivals may have assassinated Rev. Reyes and disposed of his body, and some observers even speculate that he may have fallen victim to rogue units of the Colombian army that murder innocent civilians to inflate the body counts of “terrorists” killed in battle.

But nobody knows for sure what happened to the 41-year-old father of three – William, 19, Luz Nelly, 17 and Estefania, 9. His wife and children live with gnawing fear and uncertainty.

“Some days I feel so desperate, I don’t know what to do,” Idia Miranda de Reyes told Compass by telephone from her home in Maicao. Through tears, she added, “My daughter Estefania helps me stay strong. She tells me, ‘Mama, don’t cry,’ remember that God is with us.’”

Tensions heightened for the Reyes family on Feb. 19, when armed men entered another Maicao church just a few blocks from the Light and Truth Church while worship was in progress and forcibly removed a woman from the congregation. The pastor of the church refused to disclose the victim’s identity or discuss the circumstances of her disappearance, citing concerns for the safety of the woman, her family and other members of his congregation.

Such caution is understandable in Colombia, a country that suffers the highest incidence of kidnapping in the Western Hemisphere and a homicide rate 11 times greater than in the United States.

Six months of silence in regard to her husband’s fate, coupled with this new threat to her community, has made Idia Miranda Reyes justifiably fearful for her family’s safety. Moreover, she now faces financial hardship. The Truth and Light Church kept her on the payroll until Feb. 15, when the congregation appointed a new minister to replace her husband.

She is considering a move to another city to be near her extended family but wants to wait until her daughter, Luz Nelly, graduates from high school this spring. For now, the family survives on donations from friends and church members.

“We know that God is doing something through this,” Reyes said. “I don’t understand what that is, but I’m going to keep trusting Him.”

The Reyes family has received moral support from the Christian community in Colombia. On Oct. 4, 2008, thousands of marchers from Maicao’s churches held a public demonstration to protest the disappearance of Rev. Reyes and demand his immediate release.

The march produced the only clue to his fate. Following the demonstration, the minister’s wallet turned up inside the church building with his identification documents intact. His wife took that as a message that he was still alive and that his captors would be contacting her soon.

That has not happened. But such delay tactics are not unusual in Colombian kidnapping cases, according to Michael Joseph of the Commission for Restoration, Life and Peace of the Evangelical Council of Colombia.

“It’s disconcerting that we have received no ransom request,” Joseph said. “It means he could have been killed. On the other hand, we do know that Rev. Reyes had been receiving extortion threats by phone and text message from months before he disappeared. So really it’s anybody’s guess.”

Joseph traveled to Maicao last October to interview Rev. Reyes’ wife on behalf of the commission, which then mounted a public letter-writing campaign together with Justapaz, a Mennonite Church-affiliated organization based in Bogotá. Concerned citizens petitioned the office of Attorney General Dr. Mario Iguarán to “take all steps necessary to locate Pastor Reyes and to protect his family,” and the organizations are still urging people worldwide to write to the Colombian official. A model letter can be found at http://www.justapaz.org/spip.php?article114 .

At press time, law enforcement authorities had not responded to the petition, but this is not unusual for kidnapping cases in Colombia. The attorney general’s office reportedly faces a backlog of 1 million unsolved homicides, abductions and other serious crimes.

General lawlessness in some areas of the country means that Colombians often face retaliation from the same criminals who murder or kidnap loved ones, should they dare report such crimes to the authorities as Rev. Reyes’ wife has done. She lives in fear as she awaits word of her missing husband.

“I have three kids, and I am very fearful for them,” she said. “If it were not for the solace the Lord gives me, I would go crazy. I am trusting in God alone.”

Report from Compass Direct News