Maher El-Gohary and daughter apply for asylum in France.
ISTANBUL, April 21 (CDN) — A father and daughter who fled Egypt to Syria after spending two and a half years in hiding for becoming Christians have arrived in France and yesterday applied for asylum there, human rights advocates said.
Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, 58, had become the target of Islamic ill will in Egypt after he tried to change the religious affiliation on his national identification card from Muslim to Christian. He and his daughter, 17-year-old Dina Mo’otahssem, arrived in Paris from Syria on March 30 after having fled to Damascus on Feb. 22 in the wake of the revolution in Egypt that deposed then-President Hosni Mubarak.
The Jan. 25-Feb. 11 protests in Egypt also weakened the Ministry of the Interior, an agency that had harassed El-Gohary and prevented him from leaving the country.
El-Gohary had fled to Syria because it was both the fastest and the easiest way to get out of Egypt, but he said he also feared Islamic opposition to converts in Syria and growing political unrest in Damascus.
“When we got to the French embassy in Syria, we were so scared because of what was happening in Syria at the time,” he said.
It took him more than a month to secure a visa to leave Syria. Previously in Egypt, he had been able to leave because he had received a court decision ordering the Ministry of the Interior to allow him to leave the country; taking advantage of the confusion gripping Egyptian government agencies in the wake of the anti-Mubarak protests, he left with his daughter.
Eventually El-Gohary and his daughter hope to gain a visa to the United States and then immigrate.
Despite their newfound safety, El-Gohary and Dina are still shaken by their ordeal. They said they are afraid that a Muslim extremist in France could seek them out and attack them. They also have unresolved medical issues from the physical stress of two years of hiding and from not being able to receive proper medical care during that time.
On Monday (April 18), El-Gohary went to the Embassy of the United States in Paris to apply for U.S. asylum as well. According to a Coptic activist who requested anonymity, the embassy advised El-Gohary that his best option was for his wife, who lives in the United States, to apply for a visa to allow him to enter the country. El-Gohary is also applying for a tourist visa to the United States. Human rights activists have advised El-Gohary to stay in France while he applies for asylum rather than go to the United States on a tourist visa, which may leave him financially exposed and hinder his immigration efforts.
Meantime, El-Gohary’s application for asylum in France qualifies him for an automatic three-month extension on his visa to France, which was set to expire at the end of the month. The extension can be renewed as long as his case is unresolved. It also qualifies him for certain government benefits.
‘Miracle from God’
El-Gohary and his daughter were forced into hiding in August 2008 immediately after he filed his lawsuit to change his ID card’s religious designation. The suit caused uproar in a country where, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 84 percent of Muslims in Egypt believe those who leave Islam should be executed.
El-Gohary filed the suit, he said, because he wanted to spare his daughter the persecution he suffered when he became a Christian in his 20s. In theory, the religion listed on his ID card would be used to determine the religion listed on Dina’s.
In Egypt, it is illegal for adults not to have a national ID card, and it is nearly impossible to survive without one. It is necessary for opening a bank account, renting an apartment and obtaining medical care. Also, being identified as a Muslim in Egypt makes one subject to Islamic civil law, which would have prevented Dina from marrying someone identified as a Christian.
Freedom of religion, including the right to change one’s religion, is guaranteed in Egypt by law. But in practice, while it is easy for Christian converts to Islam to change the religion listed on their ID cards, it is impossible for a Muslim convert to Christianity to do the same.
For the time that El-Gohary and his daughter were on the run, they lived a marginal existence, moving from one safe house to another about once every month. On different occasions, he and Dina were attacked. On one occasion, El-Gohary said, Dina had acid thrown on her. On another, he said someone came at him with a knife.
El-Gohary called his escape from Egypt a “miracle from God,” but when he arrived in Syria he was quickly faced with the reality that he was alone in a country in which he had no support network and felt almost as unsafe as he did in Egypt. Also, his expectation that he would be able to quickly obtain a visa to the United States proved false. Frustrated by what he described as a cold reception at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, he began to look for any country in Europe that would give him an
On advice of the Vatican Embassy in Syria, El-Gohary went to the French Embassy in Damascus, which issued a short-term visa the same day.
“I really appreciate what the French ambassador did for us,” El-Gohary said. “The French saved us.”
El-Gohary was able to get to France with the support of Egyptian Christians and advocacy groups, most notably the United Copts of Great Britain. Dr. Ibrahim Habib, a Copt and the chairman of the group, said his organization arranged accommodation for El-Gohary and Dina with an Egyptian Christian in France. Habib said El-Gohary, motivated by fear, left for France unprepared.
“He was going to France without knowing anybody at all,” Habib said. “He was just going to land in the airport and start thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’”
Report from Compass Direct News
After painful effort to change ID card, Christians flee – to similar fate.
CAIRO, Egypt, March 21 (CDN) — When the plane carrying Maher El-Gohary and his daughter, Dina Mo’otahssem, took off from Cairo International Airport last month, they both wept with joy. After spending two-and-a-half years in hiding for leaving Islam to become Christians, they were elated by their newfound freedom.
They also felt secure that once they arrived in Syria, they would quickly obtain visas to the United States and start a new life. That hope soon proved unfounded.
After spending more than a week and a half unable to obtain a visa to the United States or to any country in Europe, they realized they may have traded in the reality of being prisoners in their own country for being refugees in another. And as El-Gohary watches the weeks pass and his resources dwindle, he said the stress is almost unbearable.
“I feel like we’ve stepped out of a prison cell and into a fire,” he said. “We are in very, very bad conditions … My daughter and I divide the bottles of water to live, because there is no income.”
Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, 58, gained notoriety in Egypt after he sued the government in August 2008 to gain the right to change the religion listed on his state-issued ID card from Islam to Christianity. In Egypt, ID cards play a critical role in a person’s life, being used for everything from opening a bank account and renting an apartment to receiving medical care.
The listed religious affiliation, whether a card-holder subscribes to it or not, also determines whether the person is subject to Islamic civil law. The listed religious designation determines what state-mandated religion classes minors are required to take in school. El-Gohary said he filed the suit so his daughter, then 15, could opt out of the religious classes and would not be subject to the persecution he suffered when he became a Christian in his 20s.
It is a crime punishable by imprisonment to have no ID card in Egypt.
The suit sparked outrage throughout Egypt. Both El-Gohary and his daughter were publicly branded apostates in a country where 84 percent of Muslims think those who leave Islam should be executed, according to a study released by the Pew Research Center in December. The same month the suit was filed in 2008, El-Gohary and his daughter were forced into hiding.
For two-and-a-half years, El-Gohary shifted back and forth among several apartments in Cairo and Alexandria, usually once every month. Even in hiding, the two were harassed regularly by Egypt’s dreaded State Security Intelligence service (SSI) and assaulted repeatedly by others, including someone pouring acid on Dina, El-Gohary said.
While in hiding, El-Gohary tried repeatedly to leave Egypt, but officials at the Ministry of the Interior blocked him at every attempt. On at least one occasion, they seized his passport. In December 2010, after a long legal battle, El-Gohary got a court decision ordering the Ministry of the Interior to allow him to travel, but he said it still took several weeks for the government to comply with the order; the Jan. 25-Feb. 11 revolution didn’t hurt, El-Gohary said.
Out of Egypt
After the national demonstrations that led to the removal of both President Hosni Mubarak and Minister of Interior Habib Al-Adly, El-Gohary and his daughter went to Cairo International Airport on Feb. 22 to leave the county. They came prepared with their newly issued passports, the court order and myriad documents to prove they had the right to leave the country. Even so, authorities took the two aside for interrogation at the airport.
“My daughter and I went to the counter of the airport to the manager, then they took us to the SSI,” El-Gohary said. “We spent an hour talking to an officer trying to tell him, ‘We spent ages during Habib Al-Adly’s time, and even now after the revolution, we don’t have the right to leave?’”
According to El-Gohary, the guard asked him if he really wanted to leave the country.
“Yes,” El-Gohary replied. “I have a court order against Al-Adly, and I have the right to leave and the freedom to travel outside the country.” As if to add insult to more than two years of injury, the SSI officers told El-Gohary that Egypt was “their country” and to “come back anytime you want to.”
El-Gohary credits the revolution as the reason he was allowed to leave Egypt, saying it was a miracle “from God.”
They chose to go to Syria because Egyptian citizens are not required to have visas to visit there. After contact with a U.S. organization that concentrates on religious freedom, El-Gohary expected it would be easy to get a visa to the United States, where his wife lives. But he said he has been unable to obtain an entry visa there or to any country where he will feel safe. He went to a U.N. office in Syria seeking assistance; he was given an appointment to come back on April 20.
“I wasn’t expecting, after all this suffering and all these years, that…” El-Gohary said, cutting himself off. “The series of persecution is not finished.”
Although they don’t live under the same type of threats as they did in Egypt, El-Gohary and Dina now live in an apartment where they still watch everything they say and everyone with whom they talk. They still spend much of their time trapped between the four walls of their apartment because Syria, El-Gohary said, is a country where converts to Christianity from Islam are persecuted.
“The danger is still there,” El-Gohary said. “We don’t get out of the house. We don’t meet people. We don’t tell people what we are doing or talk to them about our situation. Because we don’t want someone to say, ‘Why are you applying to the U.N.?’ There are still a lot of enemies.”
Dina, now 17, said that although leaving Egypt was “like a miracle,” she is devastated by the prospect of having to spend more time with her life on hold. She said she is just as scared in Syria as she was in Egypt.
“We’re really, really tired of all this suffering,” she said. “I’ve lost two years of my life. I want to finish school.”
Muslim converts to Christianity in Syria were sometimes forced to leave their place of residence due to societal pressure last year, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report. While there is no official state religion in Syria, the constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic law is a principal source of legislation.
With strict monitoring and curtailing of militant Islam, the government in Syria has long been considered a moderate regime. The government’s fear of violent responses by Islamic extremists to increasing conversions to Christianity, however, was at least partially responsible for the closing of six buildings where Christians were meeting last year, according to Christian support organization Open Doors. Noting that several Christians were arrested and interrogated in 2010, the organization’s World Watch List bumped Syria’s ranking up to 38th place among nations in which persecution of Christians takes place, from position 41 the previous year.
Syria is 90 percent Muslim, and 6.34 percent of its 22.5 million population is Christian, according to Operation World.
Though El-Gohary and his daughter have a dark outlook on their current situation, they are still grateful.
“Without God’s love, we would have been dead by now,” El-Gohary said. “Getting out of Egypt itself was a victory from God.”
Dina said she also is thankful, but that as she gets older she is becoming increasingly preoccupied by one wish.
“I want to get out so I can finish my studies,” she said. “I want to go into a church and out of a church without being scared of being killed.”
Report from Compass Direct News
A fresco of Christ on the Kremlin Wall in Moscow rediscovered after being plastered over during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution has been presented in a ceremony attended by Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, reports Ecumenical News International.
"The history of these icons is a symbol of what happened with our people in the 20th century," said Kirill at the 28 August ceremony. "It was claimed that true goals and values and genuine shrines were destroyed, and that faith had disappeared from the lives of our people."
The fresco of Christ is located over the Spasskaya, or Saviour, tower of the Kremlin, near St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. Experts say it dates to the middle or second half of the 17th century.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Iranian authorities clashed with opposition supporters Thursday as thousands rallied in Tehran to mark the 31st anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic. Arrests and tear gas marred the celebration, reports MNN.
Evangelist Sammy Tippit broadcasts television programming into Iran via satellite, and he says what’s happening is ironic. "There was a revolution that took place that brought the people back to Islam and made this an Islamic republic. As a result of that, the people have now seen Islam for what it is, and they are rejecting that."
One Iranian leader says the most effective evangelist in Iran is the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. "When he came in, it exposed what real Islam is all about." Iranians have lived under the oppression he imposed and are rejecting it.
Tippit says Iranians are looking for freedom. "The greatest freedom in the world is in Christ, so that’s why so many people are turning to Christ," says Tippit.
He adds, "Christians have had a wonderful opportunity during this time [to share the Gospel], but it’s also been a very difficult time for them." He continues, "The government has used the Christians as kind of a ‘whipping boy’. They say, ‘Okay, we have to take this out on someone,’ so they’ve really cracked down on Christians."
Tippit, who is considered an enemy of the state, says there is a huge need right now. The "many people coming to Christ [need training] to help build up the church during this time of great stress that’s going on."
That training is done outside Iran. Tippit says, "We have our Web site that’s in the Farsi language. And, we have our conference in what I call ‘safe places’ where we bring leaders from outside the country and inside the country to train them and help them to grow in Christ."
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Judge puts them on probation, threatening them with ‘apostasy’ trial.
LOS ANGELES, March 31 (Compass Direct News) – Declaring three Iranian Christians guilty of cooperating with “anti-government movements,” a court in Shiraz on March 10 ordered the converts to discontinue Christian activities and stop propagating their faith.
An Islamic Revolutionary Court judge handed an eight-month suspended prison sentence with a five-year probation to Seyed Allaedin Hussein, Homayoon Shokouhi, and Seyed Amir Hussein Bob-Annari. The judge said he would enforce their prison sentence and try them as “apostates,” or those who leave Islam, if they violate terms of their probation – including a ban on contacting one another.
A new penal code under consideration by the Iranian Parliament includes a bill that would require the death penalty for apostasy.
“The warning that they will be ‘arrested and tried as apostates’ if they continue their Christian activities is quite chilling,” said a regional analyst who requested anonymity.
The Islamic Revolutionary Court was created after Iran’s 1979 revolution to prosecute those suspected of seeking to depose the Islamic regime. The “anti-government movements” referred to by the judge are satellite television stations Love Television and Salvation TV. Unlike the Internet, which is heavily censored in Iran, the two 24-hour satellite TV stations can bypass government information barriers.
Sources said links between the accused and these organizations, however, remain tenuous.
“The TV link came up almost six months after [the original arrests], so it is very new,” said an informed source. “We believe they just made it up, or it is something they want to make appear more important than is the reality.”
The three men were arrested by security forces on May 11, 2008 at the Shiraz airport while en route to a Christian marriage seminar in Dubai. According to a report by Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN), at that time the families of the three men avoided formal charges by agreeing to terms of release, including payment of a bond amount. Details of the terms were undisclosed.
The sentencing of three converts from Islam follows more than 50 documented arrests of Christians in 2008 alone, and the recent government crackdown includes Christian institutions that minister beyond Iran’s tiny indigenous Christian community.
On March 19, Assyrian Member of Parliament Yonathan Betkolia announced that by order of the Islamic Revolutionary Court, an Assyrian Pentecostal church in Tehran would be closed. According to FCNN, the church in the Shahrara area of Tehran was facing closure because it offered a Farsi-language service attended by converts from Islam.
During a speech following his election to Parliament in October, Betkolia had lauded freedoms accorded to minority groups in Iran, and he has publicly protested the Shahrara church allowing “non-Assyrians” – that is, Muslims – to attend services. The regional analyst said that Betkolia made these pronouncements as the increase in government pressure on the Christian community has put him in a difficult position.
“As a representative of the Assyrian community, a priority for Betkolia is to ensure the preservation of the limited freedoms and relative peace his traditional Christian community enjoys,” said the analyst. “Disassociation from a church which has welcomed believers from a Muslim background should therefore be seen as a form of self-defense.”
The number of Assyrian Christians in the country is estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000, with estimates of Armenian Christians in Iran ranging from 110,000 to 300,000.
Advocacy organization Human Rights Activists in Iran strongly criticized the decision to close the Assyrian church.
“The closing of the church is clearly a violation of human rights,” the organization stated, “because the right to change one’s religion and the right of self-expression are hereby targeted by the Islamic Revolutionary Court.”
The pastor of the Shahrara church has indicated that cancelling Farsi-language services may allow it to continue, though it was unclear at press time whether the congregation’s leadership was willing to make that compromise. FCNN reported in February that church leaders had on some occasions cancelled Farsi-language services at church.
Report from Compass Direct News
The video footage below provides an insight into changing times within Iran. Though this video was posted a year ago, the situation is continuing along the same lines – a revolution against Islam.
The move to bring in an apostasy law in Iran against those leaving Islam should be seen against the backdrop of declining Islamic thought in Iran. The apostasy law seems to be a last desperate move to prevent the collapse of Islamic religion in Iran.
After the 2004 Orange Revolution hope returned to the then recently independent Ukraine, following the corrupt rule of the pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovych. Now, the coalition of President Viktor Yushchenko (Our Ukraine bloc) and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (Tymoshenko bloc) has fallen apart, with Tymoshenko siding with the former Ukrainian ruler Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions party.
Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party has withdrawn from the ruling coalition and now has 30 days to form a new coalition government or call a snap election. The coalition government was officially declared dissolved by the parliament speaker last Tuesday.
The Ukraine and the world now wait to see what will come of the former Soviet Republic and whether the country will slide once again towards anarchy and/or towards Russian influence.
View scenes from the Orange Revolution: