EGYPT: TWO CLASHES SHAKE COPTIC COMMUNITY


Security forces fail to avert attacks on Christians in separate cases.

ISTANBUL, July 7 (Compass Direct News) – Separate cases of sectarian violence in two villages erupted in Egypt last week, shaking the country’s Coptic Christian community as Muslims attacked their homes and security forces imposed curfews in an effort to maintain peace.

Last Wednesday (July 1) in the village of Kafr El Barbari in Mit Ghamr, Dakahlia, north of Cairo, Muslim villagers mourning the death of 18-year-old Mohamed Ramadan Ezzat, an Al Azhar University student stabbed to death by a Coptic grocer, attacked Christian homes with stones, breaking their windows.

During post-funeral violence, 25 people were injured as hundreds of angry Muslims attacked Coptic homes. Some sources claimed that those who attacked the Christian houses were Muslims from surrounding villages. Reports varied on extent of damage to houses.

Many of the 1,000 Christian Copts who live in the village of 4,000 inhabitants fled or remained indoors out of fear that tensions may escalate. A non-profit organization that visited Kafr El Barbari on Sunday reported that it was unable to make contact with Christians.

On June 29, Ezzat had gone to the family grocery store of 50-year-old Emil Gerges to buy soft drinks. A dispute about an alleged debt Ezzat had with the store ended when Gerges’ son John, 20, stabbed the young Muslim. Ezzat died in the hospital that evening, after which his family members attacked and burned the Gerges’ store as well as two of the family apartments.

Gerges, his two sons and wife were arrested on June 29, and while his wife was released for health reasons, the men of the family remain in prison under charges of manslaughter. Security forces ordered a curfew in the village and placed a cordon around it to prohibit movement into and out of it.

Although the conflict in Kafr El Barbari was seen as a family dispute, sources say it quickly escalated into sectarian violence, heightening tensions throughout the country.

“The event could have passed as an individual fight, only there is so much tension now that if any individual fight happens between a Muslim and Christian, the whole village erupts and fights,” said Samia Sidhom, news editor of Egyptian Coptic weekly Watani.

So far there has been no official reconciliation meeting between the village’s Christians and Muslims, although leaders have met. Ezzat’s father, in a statement this week to online news agency Youm 7, said that his family has conflict only with the Gerges family and asked Christians who had fled to return to their homes. He did, however, imply that if the courts did not vindicate his son’s death, he would.

Sidhom of Watani said that overall there is an increase in sectarian tensions in the country because Islamic elements see a benefit to dissension rising.

“It destabilizes the country, and it puts security authorities at a weak point,” she said.

Other Coptic experts, however, believe that security forces have a hand in most cases of sectarian violence across the nation.

“The police are more than capable of controlling any situation if they want to,” said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of U.K.-based United Copts, of the apparent lack of control during Ezzat’s funeral. “This is deliberate I think. Some authority in the police feels that this is a time to teach Christians a lesson, to humiliate them according to sharia [Islamic law], to treat them as dhimmi, to treat them as second class citizens. If the government is serious, it is more than capable of controlling things.”

Rumors Lead to More Violence

On the heels of violence in Ezbet Boshra-East last month that left Christian villagers imprisoned and hiding in their houses on suspicion of holding a prayer meeting without permission, just five kilometers away in Ezbet Guirgis on Friday (July 3) Christians faced a similar fate.

After rumors spread among Ezbet Guirgis’s 400 Muslims that the majority Christians were planning to use a four-story building as a church, early in the morning the Muslims set fire to a warehouse adjacent to the building.

The village priest, the Rev. Saman Shehata, had applied for permission to use the building for worship last year, but authorities had rejected it.

The village’s 1,400 Coptic Christians have not used the building due to lack of official permission even though they have owned it for three years. Instead, the Christians have been using an old 35-square-meter building that has association status, allowing them to pray in it.

Shehata told Compass he believed that local police authorities who resented the application for permission to use the newer building as a church, which he filed eight months ago, spread the rumor that Copts would worship there in spite the denial of his request.

“These rumors are most likely spread by the lower ranking people from the police themselves,” Shehata said. “They incite the Muslims to show that they don’t want the building.”

The priest, who has been working in Ezbet Guirgis for 12 years, said his application for church use was rejected due to its proximity to the village’s only mosque.

The fire damaged two buildings, and Muslims also tried to burn cars belonging to the church and priest. Fire brigades arrived at the scene 90 minutes later. Shehata said that after morning prayers, when he went to file a complaint about the fires, he received a phone call informing him that Muslims were attacking Christians.

Few Christians were injured. Authorities arrested 11 Christian Copts and five Muslims in connection with the fires and ensuing violence. Security forces also placed a temporary curfew on the village of Ezbet Guirgis and are monitoring the village.

On his way to visit the Christian prisoners and to give them food today, Shehata said that security forces had detained and were trying to blame Safuat Atalla, a 28-year-old Copt, for the fires, which also destroyed some of the villagers’ stored crop harvest. Atalla used to work as the Shehata’s driver and had resigned on friendly terms after he found a better job to support his new wife and ailing parents.

Shehata, however, fears that the police may be torturing Atalla to extract a false confession that he set the fires out of anger toward the priest. Shehata said it was impossible to know how the prisoners are being treated as police have heavily supervised his visits.

“The greatest difficulty is that the prayer space is very limited, and it can only accommodate 1 percent of the Christian villagers,” said Shehata of the community’s older, smaller building. “People have to stand outside the building whenever they come for mass.”

The priest said the excuse authorities give for not allowing them to use or build a church is to maintain the village’s harmony.

“Christians are forced to pray in the street, and other villagers pass through them with their cattle, and this also leads to friction,” said Shehata. “So isn’t it better to pray within four walls than in the streets, humiliated?”

Shehata said this was the first time the two communities clashed in the village.

Priest Leaves

The case of Ezbet Guirgis is similar to that of Ezbet Boshra-East, said an Egyptian human rights expert, as in both villages violence erupted on rumors about the use of church-owned buildings.

Reconciliation meetings are expected to take place in Ezbet Guirgis soon, but the expert said it was likely that in order to maintain peace, Shehata may have to leave the village as did the Rev. Isaak Castor from Ezbet Boshra-East after last month’s clashes.

“It’s expected that Father Saman must leave, because they accepted that solution in Boshra so it will be hard to accept anything else,” said the expert.

Rumors have already started circulating that Muslims are demanding that Shehata leave.

“Father Isaac is already out of the village,” said the expert, who recently spoke with Castor. “He left before the reconciliation meeting that happened on Wednesday [July 1].”

Castor moved to Minya at the request of his superiors.

Commenting on the three cases of sectarian violence within two weeks, Habib of United Copts expressed worry about the negative role security forces have played in the events and the lack of equality for Coptic Christians seeking their rights based on the Constitution, which in theory grants them religious freedom.

“The national security force is a danger, and the police are not even-handed,” he said. “Even when it comes to court, they do not supply enough evidence, the Islamists have infiltrated the courts, and this is a bad recipe for Egypt. We are really worried about what will happen in the future to the Christians.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

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EGYPT: TWO CLASHES SHAKE COPTIC COMMUNITY


Security forces fail to avert attacks on Christians in separate cases.

ISTANBUL, July 7 (Compass Direct News) – Separate cases of sectarian violence in two villages erupted in Egypt last week, shaking the country’s Coptic Christian community as Muslims attacked their homes and security forces imposed curfews in an effort to maintain peace.

Last Wednesday (July 1) in the village of Kafr El Barbari in Mit Ghamr, Dakahlia, north of Cairo, Muslim villagers mourning the death of 18-year-old Mohamed Ramadan Ezzat, an Al Azhar University student stabbed to death by a Coptic grocer, attacked Christian homes with stones, breaking their windows.

During post-funeral violence, 25 people were injured as hundreds of angry Muslims attacked Coptic homes. Some sources claimed that those who attacked the Christian houses were Muslims from surrounding villages. Reports varied on extent of damage to houses.

Many of the 1,000 Christian Copts who live in the village of 4,000 inhabitants fled or remained indoors out of fear that tensions may escalate. A non-profit organization that visited Kafr El Barbari on Sunday reported that it was unable to make contact with Christians.

On June 29, Ezzat had gone to the family grocery store of 50-year-old Emil Gerges to buy soft drinks. A dispute about an alleged debt Ezzat had with the store ended when Gerges’ son John, 20, stabbed the young Muslim. Ezzat died in the hospital that evening, after which his family members attacked and burned the Gerges’ store as well as two of the family apartments.

Gerges, his two sons and wife were arrested on June 29, and while his wife was released for health reasons, the men of the family remain in prison under charges of manslaughter. Security forces ordered a curfew in the village and placed a cordon around it to prohibit movement into and out of it.

Although the conflict in Kafr El Barbari was seen as a family dispute, sources say it quickly escalated into sectarian violence, heightening tensions throughout the country.

“The event could have passed as an individual fight, only there is so much tension now that if any individual fight happens between a Muslim and Christian, the whole village erupts and fights,” said Samia Sidhom, news editor of Egyptian Coptic weekly Watani.

So far there has been no official reconciliation meeting between the village’s Christians and Muslims, although leaders have met. Ezzat’s father, in a statement this week to online news agency Youm 7, said that his family has conflict only with the Gerges family and asked Christians who had fled to return to their homes. He did, however, imply that if the courts did not vindicate his son’s death, he would.

Sidhom of Watani said that overall there is an increase in sectarian tensions in the country because Islamic elements see a benefit to dissension rising.

“It destabilizes the country, and it puts security authorities at a weak point,” she said.

Other Coptic experts, however, believe that security forces have a hand in most cases of sectarian violence across the nation.

“The police are more than capable of controlling any situation if they want to,” said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of U.K.-based United Copts, of the apparent lack of control during Ezzat’s funeral. “This is deliberate I think. Some authority in the police feels that this is a time to teach Christians a lesson, to humiliate them according to sharia [Islamic law], to treat them as dhimmi, to treat them as second class citizens. If the government is serious, it is more than capable of controlling things.”

Rumors Lead to More Violence

On the heels of violence in Ezbet Boshra-East last month that left Christian villagers imprisoned and hiding in their houses on suspicion of holding a prayer meeting without permission, just five kilometers away in Ezbet Guirgis on Friday (July 3) Christians faced a similar fate.

After rumors spread among Ezbet Guirgis’s 400 Muslims that the majority Christians were planning to use a four-story building as a church, early in the morning the Muslims set fire to a warehouse adjacent to the building.

The village priest, the Rev. Saman Shehata, had applied for permission to use the building for worship last year, but authorities had rejected it.

The village’s 1,400 Coptic Christians have not used the building due to lack of official permission even though they have owned it for three years. Instead, the Christians have been using an old 35-square-meter building that has association status, allowing them to pray in it.

Shehata told Compass he believed that local police authorities who resented the application for permission to use the newer building as a church, which he filed eight months ago, spread the rumor that Copts would worship there in spite the denial of his request.

“These rumors are most likely spread by the lower ranking people from the police themselves,” Shehata said. “They incite the Muslims to show that they don’t want the building.”

The priest, who has been working in Ezbet Guirgis for 12 years, said his application for church use was rejected due to its proximity to the village’s only mosque.

The fire damaged two buildings, and Muslims also tried to burn cars belonging to the church and priest. Fire brigades arrived at the scene 90 minutes later. Shehata said that after morning prayers, when he went to file a complaint about the fires, he received a phone call informing him that Muslims were attacking Christians.

Few Christians were injured. Authorities arrested 11 Christian Copts and five Muslims in connection with the fires and ensuing violence. Security forces also placed a temporary curfew on the village of Ezbet Guirgis and are monitoring the village.

On his way to visit the Christian prisoners and to give them food today, Shehata said that security forces had detained and were trying to blame Safuat Atalla, a 28-year-old Copt, for the fires, which also destroyed some of the villagers’ stored crop harvest. Atalla used to work as the Shehata’s driver and had resigned on friendly terms after he found a better job to support his new wife and ailing parents.

Shehata, however, fears that the police may be torturing Atalla to extract a false confession that he set the fires out of anger toward the priest. Shehata said it was impossible to know how the prisoners are being treated as police have heavily supervised his visits.

“The greatest difficulty is that the prayer space is very limited, and it can only accommodate 1 percent of the Christian villagers,” said Shehata of the community’s older, smaller building. “People have to stand outside the building whenever they come for mass.”

The priest said the excuse authorities give for not allowing them to use or build a church is to maintain the village’s harmony.

“Christians are forced to pray in the street, and other villagers pass through them with their cattle, and this also leads to friction,” said Shehata. “So isn’t it better to pray within four walls than in the streets, humiliated?”

Shehata said this was the first time the two communities clashed in the village.

Priest Leaves

The case of Ezbet Guirgis is similar to that of Ezbet Boshra-East, said an Egyptian human rights expert, as in both villages violence erupted on rumors about the use of church-owned buildings.

Reconciliation meetings are expected to take place in Ezbet Guirgis soon, but the expert said it was likely that in order to maintain peace, Shehata may have to leave the village as did the Rev. Isaak Castor from Ezbet Boshra-East after last month’s clashes.

“It’s expected that Father Saman must leave, because they accepted that solution in Boshra so it will be hard to accept anything else,” said the expert.

Rumors have already started circulating that Muslims are demanding that Shehata leave.

“Father Isaac is already out of the village,” said the expert, who recently spoke with Castor. “He left before the reconciliation meeting that happened on Wednesday [July 1].”

Castor moved to Minya at the request of his superiors.

Commenting on the three cases of sectarian violence within two weeks, Habib of United Copts expressed worry about the negative role security forces have played in the events and the lack of equality for Coptic Christians seeking their rights based on the Constitution, which in theory grants them religious freedom.

“The national security force is a danger, and the police are not even-handed,” he said. “Even when it comes to court, they do not supply enough evidence, the Islamists have infiltrated the courts, and this is a bad recipe for Egypt. We are really worried about what will happen in the future to the Christians.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

PAKISTAN: MUSLIMS ATTACK PASTOR’S HOME, RELATIVES


After shooting into air, assailants strike mother, sister-in-law with rifle butts.

LAHORE, Pakistan, June 12 (Compass Direct News) – In a growing culture of violence here, a traffic incident in Punjab Province this month led to Muslim assailants later mounting an attack on the home of a Christian pastor they have increasingly resented for his evangelism and justice ministries. The attackers threatened more violence if the pastor does not drop assault charges.

A few of the 17 assailants struck the mother and sister-in-law of pastor Riaz Masih with rifle butts after the pastor’s brother, who lives at the same multi-housing complex as Masih in Kila Sardar Shah, Sheikhupura district, on June 1 complained to a local councilor about the official nearly driving into his sons. Christian leaders said the roadside incident was only the fuse igniting hostilities that have grown due to meetings held by Christ for All Nations Ministries (CANM).

The meetings have attracted many youths, including some Muslims. Pastor Masih is national coordinator of CANM, a self-supported church-planting ministry. Saqib Munawar, chairman of CANM, said the attack on the pastor’s home in the remote village is an indication that as Islamic extremism rises amid a military attempt to flush Islamic militants from the Swat Valley in the country’s northwest, a growing culture of violence means minor incidents more easily erupt into attacks.

“As the Swat operation is going on, hostilities against Christians are on the rise,” Munawar said. “Extremism, which has flourished in the last few decades, is now creating problems for all Pakistanis. This attitude has promoted violence in the country.”

Pakistanis are becoming more violent, he said, and extremism has increased partially in response to evangelism efforts by Christians, he said.

In the triggering incident, pastor Masih’s 17- and 18-year-old nephews were standing on the side of a road with their backs to traffic in Kila Sardar Shah when Malik Younus, a village councilor, passed in a vehicle that nearly struck them. The teenagers immediately complained to Younus that he should have at least honked to warn them to step aside.

Younus got out of his vehicle and beat them, Munawar said. They complained to their father, Mushtaq Masih, who then called Younus. Younus threatened to beat them again, and Mushtaq Masih responded that he would have no choice but to call police. Younus became furious, according to Munawar.

Within an hour Younus, his brother Malik Falak Sher and 15 other men armed with automatic weapons and wooden clubs arrived at the multi-family complex where Pastor Masih and his brothers live with their families. The pastor was some distance from home when his 12-year-old daughter called and told him that the Muslim attackers were outside firing into the air.

Rushing to the scene, Masih approached the house from the backyard as the assailants were breaking down the main gate. The pastor managed to lock himself with members of his family inside a room, but his sister-in-law – wife of his younger brother Ilias Masih – and his mother were outside at the time.

Having broken down the main gate and wall and had entered the courtyard, the assailants struck the two women with rifle butts and demanded to know where the boys and their father were. Pastor’s Masih’s brother, Mushtaq Masih, had also locked himself and his family in a room. The attackers were trying to break down the doors of rooms in pastor Masih’s home when one of them called off the assault and they left.

The family reported the assault to police, but officers have done nothing as they have close ties with the attackers – and the assailants also have links with various local government leaders, Munawar said. The intruding Muslims warned pastor Masih and his family that if they contacted police and media, they would face “retribution.”

The Station House Officer told Compass that Younus and his cohorts had been released on bail; he would not comment further.

Munawar said the Masih families will likely seek a settlement instead of jail terms.

“The family will probably go for an out-of-court settlement, as they have to live,” he said. “However, fears are that such flare-ups may hit back, which would certainly hamper our evangelical efforts.”

Rumors spread that a former member of the Punjab Assembly, Agha Gull, was involved in the traffic incident, but Gull told Compass that he was in Iraq at the time of the incident and had nothing to do with it. Gull said someone told him that a clash took place on the road, but that “none of the parties came to me.”

Justice Ministry

Certain that the remote village Muslims would not have access to Compass news, pastor Masih told Compass that the antagonists were upset with him also over his efforts to take back lands stolen from Christian families. There are four Christian families in the village of 40 to 50 families.

The Christian villagers had paid for land they have lived on since 1989, but they never received documents for the transfer, leaving the real estate in the hands of Muslim businessman Syed Izhar Shah – whom villagers say is involved in land theft in collaboration with those who instigated the June 1 attack, Younus and his brother Sher.

Last year pastor Masih offered 20,000 rupees (US$250) to the landowner to legally transfer the property with proper documentation, but the owner declined. Pastor Masih’s father has also paid some 10,000 rupees for his share of the land. Additionally, Akram Masih, who heads one of the four Christian families in the area, has paid an additional 27,000 rupees (US$335) in an effort to legally obtain his share of the land, but the landowner forbid him to take possession as well.

Younus and Sher are behind a land-grab designed to drive the few Christian families from the area, pastor Masih said. They have illegally taken over a nearby, eight-acre tract of land zoned for a housing tract called Royal Town. Christian villagers had paid for this land also in 1989 – and also without receiving documentation – and the legal land owner, Syed Izhar Shah, is pressuring them to either pay the current price or leave the village, pastor Masih said.

“The attack has been unleashed on the weakest, because there are only four Christian families living in this village,” said pastor Masih. “They are vexing us so that we leave the area.”

Pastor Munawar said that anti-Christian hostilities resulted in the cancellation of CANM’s youth program, which was scheduled for last Monday (June 8).

“The fate of our next program, scheduled on June 21, is also hanging in balance,” he said.

Munawar added that last year’s annual youth program, held in May, had been secured by armed Christians after an area Muslim tipped them off that their worship could be targeted. The guards were provided licensed .222 Remington rifles.

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: CONVERT’S RELIGIOUS RIGHTS CASE THREATENS ISLAMISTS


Muslims said to fear that freedom to legally change religion would wreak societal havoc.

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.

Churches Challenged

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.

Hegazy’s Hope

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

PAKISTAN: TWO CHRISTIANS ACQUITTED OF ‘BLASPHEMY’


After nearly two and half years in jail, elderly men’s 10-year sentences overturned.

ISTANBUL, April 21 (Compass Direct News) – After more than two years in a Pakistani jail, two elderly Christian men convicted of “blasphemy” against the Quran were acquitted on Thursday (April 16) when a high court in Lahore overturned their 10-year sentence.

James Masih, 67, and Buta Masih, 72, were accused of burning pages from the Quran in October 2006 and were also tried under an anti-terrorism law because their actions were deemed to have created fear and panic. In a case that drew crowds of Islamic fanatics, they were convicted on Nov. 25, 2006 of blaspheming Islam’s sacred book.

The pair has claimed from the start that the blasphemy charges were fabricated due to a dispute over a plot of land that a Muslim neighbor wanted James Masih to sell.

“It happens many times, it is always a false story due to some other enmity,” said Father Yaqub Yousaf, the men’s parish priest. “Pastors and priests, we tell them that it is better not to speak on religion with the Muslims, not to say anything that can hurt them, so normally they don’t do that.”

After rumors erupted that the two men had burned pages of the Quran on Oct. 8, 2006, some 500 Muslims attempted to kill them. Police arrested the two Christians and held off the crowds, which stayed outside the police station through the night.

The Christian men launched an appeal soon after their conviction and have since remained in prison.

“I appeared in court 27 times during the appeal,” said Khalil Tahir Sindhu, their lawyer. “Most of the time the judges postponed the case, saying, ‘We will hear the case next time.’”

Sindhu told Compass that religious bias and public pressure led to the judge’s original decision to sentence the men and could have had much to do with the delays in hearing the appeal.

“At the last hearing [Dec. 15, 2008], the judge reserved judgment, which according to law has to be given within three months,” he said. “But it was over three months, so I went to court and told him, ‘These are old men and they are sick, so please announce the judgment.’”

James Masih was hospitalized three times during his internment, receiving treatment for a chest infection.

“Jail is totally different [in Pakistan], you hardly have proper food, and no facilities,” said Fr. Yousaf. Sources said both men were traumatized by their ordeal, an effect also felt keenly by their families, who were rarely able to visit.

 

Permanent Stigma

Articles 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code respectively prescribe life imprisonment for desecrating the Quran and death for insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Although the law has not been implemented to the full extent of capital punishment or life in prison since its introduction in 1986, there have been more than 20 deaths recorded in blasphemy-related violence.

Even after their acquittal and release, Sindhu said, the men will not be able to immediately return home.

“It is dangerous now, we will not send them to their home,” said Sindhu. “We will keep them away for one to two months until the situation changes. Anyone can kill them.”

Christians previously accused of blasphemy continued to experience prejudice and sometimes violence even after being cleared of the charges.

“It is difficult for the blasphemy accused to find work,” commented Wasim Muntizar from the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement. “Churches are afraid to help them, because fanatics won’t hesitate to kill the ‘blasphemer’ and attack the church.”

Although the families of James and Buta Masih remain excited at the prospect of the pair’s upcoming return home, Fr. Yousaf has urged them to keep their celebrations muted.

“They are excited, yes, but I told them not to express so strongly their joy about it,” he said. “I requested them to keep it secret, because it may not be safe – some of the Muslims may say the court has not taken the right decision. In the past people have been killed after being acquitted.”

Report from Compass Direct News

HUNDREDS OF MUSLIMS ATTACK CHRISTIAN SHOPS IN EGYPT


Hundreds of Muslims have attacked Christian shops and a police station in the Egyptian city of Alexandria on Sunday, April 5, 2009, following rumors that a Muslim man was stabbed and killed by his Christian landlords, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

According to a story written by Jenna Lyle and posted on the UK website, www.christiantoday.com, the trouble started when many Muslims gathered at a mosque for funeral prayers for the dead man, Abdel Razeq Gomaa. They then started to chant “They’ll die, they’ll die.”

“Three Christian brothers, Ayman, Atef and Farag Tagy were accused of murdering the man,” wrote Lyle.

“According to security forces, Gomaa was the only Muslim tenant in a building owned by the three men, and was injured in an earlier fight with the brothers. It has been reported that the three brothers have been detained in connection with Gomaa’s death.

She added, “Around 10 per cent of Egypt’s population are Coptic Christians and while relations with the Muslim majority are usually quiet, they can sometimes explode in disputes over land, religious buildings, women or small acts of violence.

“In 2006, a Muslim killed a Christian, which led to three days of Christian-Muslim violence in Alexandria.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

VIETNAM: HISTORIC CHURCH BUILDING DEMOLISHED


Government wrecking crews arrive hours after promises of security.

HO CHI MINH CITY, April 9 (Compass Direct News) – Just hours after the prime minister’s office assured denominational leaders that there were no plans to destroy their Protestant church building, authorities in Banmethuot last month demolished the historic structure in the Central Highlands city.

Government work crews arrived at the site just after darkness fell on March 11 and quickly demolished the structure belonging to the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South), or ECVN(S), according to local sources.

Authorities had confiscated the church building in 1975 after the Communist victory and had removed its cross. But the bright pink church stood prominently, though unused, for many years on Le Duan Boulevard on Banmethuot’s south side. Church authorities many times had asked for its return.

It was the last remaining church building of the Ede ethnic minority, who make up most of Dak Lak’s 135,000 believers.

The demolition was the latest in a series of painful developments. In early March three pastors from ECVN(S)’s Dak Lak provincial committee took up the matter of the church building with local authorities. The officials told the pastors that the request for return would soon be resolved, and that until then the building was secure.

But on March 11, rumors of an imminent plan to demolish the church reached members of the ECVN(S) provincial committee. Alarmed, they called their top leaders at Ho Chi Minh City headquarters. The church president promptly agreed to call the office of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and the Ministry of Public Security in Hanoi. Officials told him not to worry, that there was no plan to demolish the church.

“Nothing will happen – we are in control,” an official told the denominational president, according to one Christian source. “The ECVN(S) president called his Dak Lak provincial committee in the evening to pass on this assurance from the very top. Hardly an hour later, after darkness had fallen, government officials supervised destruction of the church building.”

A frustrated ECVN(S) leader called the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Public Security asking how, in the light of the demolition, the church could trust them, sources said.

“He was told, ‘Sorry, but this as an action of the local officials,’” one source said. “This downward deflection of responsibility in regard to religious issues happens regularly.”

A week later, on March 20, the ECVN(S) governing board of 22 members unanimously passed a resolution.

“Numerous times the Executive Council of our church has petitioned the government concerning our many confiscated properties,” the resolution reads. “Most regrettably, not only have the petitions not been satisfactorily dealt with, but on the night of March 11, 2009, officials of Dak Lak province demolished the last remaining Ede church at Gate One in Banmethuot City.

“The Executive Council of the ECVN(S) is extremely upset and in deep sympathy with the 135,000 believers in Dak Lak province. We hereby urgently notify all churches in our fellowship. We are deeply saddened by these events.”

Calling for the church to set aside today for fasting and prayer, the resolution also stated that ECVN(S)’s Executive Council would select representatives to meet with authorities of Dak Lak province and the central government to ask that “they urgently address and solve this matter so that the events described above will not be repeated in other places.”

When the church circulated the urgent bulletin concerning the day of fasting and prayer, government authorities strongly objected, saying they feared it might lead to demonstrations in the Central Highlands. But the church did not back down.

Fallout continues. The three pastors of the ECVN(S) Dak Lak provincial committee, two Ede and one ethnic Vietnamese, have resigned, citing government betrayal. A meeting of the two ECVN(S) vice-presidents with Dak Lak officials this week was described as “very disappointing.”

Dak Lak province was also the location of the demolition of a large new church building in Cu Hat, Krong Bong district in December. It belonged to the Vietnam Good News Church, an unregistered group (see “Authorities Destroy New Church Building,” Dec. 17, 2008). Authorities disguised in civilian clothes destroyed the new structure because they said Christians had illegally cut the lumber used to build it. Virtually all homes and buildings in the area are built using such lumber.

Being unregistered or fully registered as the ECVN(S) seems to make little difference to authorities, a Christian source said.

“Leaders of both registered and unregistered Protestant groups express equal helplessness in the face of such malicious government actions against them,” he said.

Last year the prime minister promised a resolution to a major dispute with Catholics over the long-contested property that once served as the residence of the papal nuncio in Hanoi. The outcome was similar: the confiscated property was not returned, and on Sept. 19, 2008 the residence was destroyed.

Both Protestant and Catholic church leaders in Vietnam say that blatant government duplicity quickly and seriously undermines Vietnam’s recent hard-won gains in perceptions of improvement in religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS ACQUITTED IN ‘BLASPHEMY’ CASE


Religious reconciliation meetings produce first such acquittal as imams issue fatwa.

ISTANBUL, January 23 (Compass Direct News) – Five Christians charged with “blasphemy” against Islam during April 2007 religious holidays were released on Monday (Jan. 19) after reconciliation meetings between Christian and Islamic leaders – the first verdict to have resulted from such efforts in Pakistan.

A Punjab court released Salamat Masih, 42, his 16-year-old son Rashid, and their relatives Ishfaq, Saba and Dao Masih after a judge acquitted them. Their acquittal and release came through out-of-court meetings between Muslim leaders and a Christian Non-Governmental Organization.

“This is a wonderful sign that has made history,” said Shahzad Kamran, a case worker for Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan (SLMP), which negotiated with the Muslim leaders. “This case can set a precedent for future blasphemy cases against Christians.”

The reconciliation meetings between SLMP and local and national imams began last November. Rather than attempt to settle the matter in court, the legal advocacy group sought out Muslim leaders directly to persuade them that the accused were innocent; the Islamic clerics then compelled area Muslims to drop their charges.

The meetings took place between four Islamic clergymen, National Assembly Representative Mushtaq Ahmed and Sohail Johnson of the SLMP. Ahmed was unavailable for comment in spite of repeated attempts to contact him.

Johnson of SLMP took precautionary measures to keep from being exposed to violence, meeting with the imams in neutral locations away from mosques and Muslim parts of the city. The SLMP team managed to convince the Islamic clerics to release the Christians by persuading them that the alleged blasphemy grew from a misunderstanding.

“There is permission granted in Islamic law that if someone unintentionally commits an offense, it can be reconciled,” Johnson said. “[The cleric] said he would do it because he did not want to bring harm and injustice to the community.”

The Islamic clergymen agreed to issue a fatwa (religious edict) declaring the accused men innocent of blasphemy. The Muslim witnesses in the case withdrew their testimony on Jan. 13, and District Judge Sheik Salahudin acquitted the five men in a Toba Tek Singh court.

The legal advocates involved in the case said they would employ reconciliation in future cases of false blasphemy charges. They said that battling such cases in court can still free innocent people, but it does not help to solve sectarian strife that leads to violence and false charges.

But with reconciliation meetings, “the word of God has affected the hearts of the Muslims and changed their behavior,” Johnson said. “With our good behavior we can change the people.”

The SLMP’s Kamran said the imams declared the defendants innocent because they knew the men did not intentionally insult the Islamic religion. The situation likely escalated because it took place during an Islamic holiday, with the April 2007 Muslim celebration of Eid-e-Millad-ul-Nabi (Muhammad’s birthday) turning into mob violence after the spread of false rumors against Christians. Local Christian Ratan Masih was severely injured. Other Christians fled for fear of their lives, according to SLMP.

Approximately 2,000 Muslims attacked Christian Colony, a Christian neighborhood, stoning houses and torturing Christians, according to an SLMP report. Initially the mob violence began over a quarrel between Rashid Masih’s younger brother Daniel, 12, and a Muslim child named Sunny. In the course of the argument, a sticker fell off Sunny’s shirt that bore the words Yah Rasool Allah, a reference to Muhammad as God’s messenger.

A local resident, Mohammed Farsal, saw the sticker on the ground and accused the Christian children of blasphemy. Violence soon broke out, and police eventually arrested all five men on charges of insulting Islam.

Blasphemy charges against non-Muslims are not uncommon in Pakistan and are typically applied in cases of sectarian violence. Islamic leaders are often under community pressure to blame Christians in these situations.

Human rights lawyers hope this case sets a precedent for future blasphemy cases, with spurious charges of insulting Islam or its prophet becoming more difficult to press.

Other legal cases of blasphemy continue in Pakistan, including the arrest of Munir Masih and his wife Ruqiya Bibi for insulting Islam. They were granted bail yesterday in Kasur.

At the hearing, 20 local Muslims pressured the judge not to grant them bail, according to a report from the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement.

On Wednesday (Jan. 21), Hector Aleem from Islamabad was falsely accused of blasphemy, most likely as a backlash to his role as a human rights activist, the report said.

Christian lawmakers in the Muslim-majority country of 170 million hope to curb these legal abuses by abolishing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.  

Report from Compass Direct News

BANGLADESH: CHRISTIAN FAMILY BEATEN, CUT – AND FACES CHARGES


Muslim neighbors, local council threaten to burn home if they file assault case.

MALUMGHAT, Bangladesh, December 8 (Compass Direct News) – The harassment that Bangladeshi converts from Islam face from Muslim neighbors in this southeastern area near Cox’s Bazar can take serious turns – as it did last month, when an attack by about a dozen Muslims left a Christian family with machete wounds.

Confident that no police would side with Christian converts from Islam, the Muslims in Chakaria town, near Cox’s Bazar 380 kilometers (236 miles) southeast of the capital city of Dhaka, later filed false charges of assault against the wounded and limping Christians, family members said.

The smallest of claims can serve to provoke such attacks. Laila Begum, a 45-year-old Christian convert from Islam, said she was helping to make disbursements for a local non-governmental micro-credit agency called Darpan in Chakaria town on Nov. 1 when 10 to 15 Muslim neighbors blocked her way and demanded 200 taka (US$3).

Begum told Compass she had borrowed 2,000 taka (US$30) last year from a neighbor, a Muslim woman who goes by the single name of Kohinoor, and this year paid her back with interest. Telling the group she would give them no more money as she had already repaid the loan, Begum said, she asked why they were demanding more.

They began beating her, snatching a pair of gold ornaments from her ear.

“Suddenly they got equipped with sticks, iron rods, knives and machetes,” she said. “Several places of my head were lacerated by machetes and iron rods. They also cut two of my fingers when I tried to fend off their attacks. They beat me in several places of my body by iron rods and sticks.”

Begum said her husband Abdur Rahman, a 48-year-old gatekeeper at Memorial Baptist Hospital, and her 27-year-old son Selim Rahman, heard her screams and were also beaten when they rushed to help her.

“They thrust at my son with machetes and a sharp knife and stabbed him in his thigh,” she said. “They beat my son with sticks and iron rods, knocking him down. They also beat the kneecap of my husband and other parts of his body.”

When her 18-year-old daughter Rosy Rahman came to their aid, the attackers punched her in the neck and chin, she said.

“They beat her in various parts of the body with sticks,” Begum said. “Shamelessly they removed her wrap over the breasts in front of dozens of onlookers.”

One of the attacking neighbors, she said, told her, “Nobody will come to save you if we beat you, because you are converted to Christianity from Islam.”

Begum, her husband and elder son were admitted to a nearby hospital. Her husband is still hobbled, walking with the aid of a stick.

“Muslim neighbors filed a case against us where they mentioned that we had beaten them – it is a false case,” Begum said. “They beat us and they filed a false case against us.”

Police Sub-inspector Manjurul Alam confirmed that the Muslim neighbors had filed a case against Rahman’s family, and that Rahman had also filed an assault case against the attackers.

“We are investigating it,” he said.

Begum said local Muslims threatened to beat the Christians again if they filed a case against them.

“They threatened that if we file a case, they will carry out an arson attack, and our house will be burnt to the ground,” she said. “They will evict us from the locality. They will beat us again and our life will be in great trouble.”

The family informed local governing council members about the attack, but they demanded 20,000 taka (US$300) to settle the matter and also threatened them, she said.

“The local council officials also told us that if we file any case in the police station, our houses will be burnt to ashes and we will be evicted from the locality,” she said. “The Muslim neighbors are spreading rumors that we beat them, that we borrowed 22,000 taka from them and that we did not pay them back the money. But we do not have anyone to stand beside us and listen to us.”

 

Belligerent Attitude

Because the family members are converts from Islam, they said, neighbors and distant relatives often pick quarrels with them over any small issue, with villagers later joining in to threaten or attack them.

“If we go to the market or any public places, Muslim people push us roughly from behind and use filthy words against us about Christianity,” said the oldest son, Salim Rahman.

The entire family is living in isolation due to their conversion, which the female members said is especially difficult for them.

“Whenever I go outside, local people look at me with evil leers,” said the oldest daughter, Rosy Rahman. “Everyone bad-mouths me and casts aspersions on our faith.”

She said such harassment forced her to stop going to school in 2004.

“If I had not stopped going to school, my life would have been in trouble,” she said. “I feel insecure and mixed-up, because local people always want to deflower me. If anything bad happens to me, no one in the society will stand beside me. What did we do against the society? We did nothing against them, we simply changed our faith.”

She said the ostracism and societal misconduct sometimes lead her to contemplate suicide.

 

History of Resentment

When the family and others converted to Christianity in 1991, area resentment festered and finally broke into violence in late 1992, when local Muslims vandalized and burned the local church and several Christian-owned homes.

The government deployed more than 2,000 police and other law enforcement personnel to bring the situation under control, and some local Muslims were arrested for arson.

“The arrests made the local Muslims very angry,” said pastor Benu Barua of Memorial Christian Baptist Church of Malumghat.

Rage dating back to the events of the 1990s may be at the root of the beating of Begum’s family, he said.

“The Muslim neighbors beat them for such a small amount of money – any small issue to the Muslim neighbors is like a red rag to a bull,” Barua said. “This kind of oppression, what happened to Begum’s family, is less common on other traditional Christians or those who converted from the Hindu religion. But Muslim-converted Christians are more oppressed here.”  

Report from Compass Direct News