EGYPT: STABBING, BOMBING ATTACKS STRIKE NEAR TWO CHURCHES


Copt leaving sanctuary knifed in Minya; bomb explodes near venerable structure in Cairo.

ISTANBUL, May 22 (Compass Direct News) – In separate attacks in Egypt earlier this month, a Coptic Christian suffered severe stab wounds as he left a worship service in Minya, and a car-bombing outside a venerable church in Cairo disrupted a wedding.

Without provocation, three Muslims repeatedly stabbed Coptic Christian Girgis Yousry, 21, as the army conscript was leaving the gates of the church of Saint Mary in Minya, Upper Egypt on May 2, according to Copts United.

The assault left him with severe injuries to internal organs, and he was taken to the district hospital, where he was still receiving treatment at press time.

When Yousry’s father went to the police station to report the attack, the Intelligence Services officer in charge threw him out of the station. Three men implicated in the stabbing, Wael Mohammed Hagag, Mohammed Nasr Anwar and Shabaan Sayed Amin, were arrested on May 5 and have been given a 16-day initial incarceration while the investigation is underway.

All three men stand accused of attempted murder without premeditation, which carries a sentence of five to 15 years.

But Mamdouh Nakhla, president of the Al-Kalema Centre for Human Rights, said he thinks it unlikely that they will be convicted.

“From my experience over the last 15 years, in Minya in particular, all cases of attacks and murder against Christians either went without punishment and [the accused] were totally exonerated, or they were given suspended sentences,” he said.

Home to Egypt’s largest community of Copts (approximately 4 million), Minya is considered a hotbed of anti-Christian violence.

“I am aware of severe injustices happening to Christians who are being incarcerated for no reason,” said Nakhla. “This is my experience of Minya.”

Local sources told Compass that in the last few months there has been a wave of arrests of Christians who are held with no official charges. Sources spoke of cases where detainees are held for months in prison, where they are badly beaten and tortured.

“Police brutality is a widely practiced policy,” said one source, “especially in rural areas, group punishment and systematic intimidation and humiliation are expected practices against all citizens, Christians included.”

This month Compass learned of three illegal arrests of Christians that have taken place since November 2008. Two of the men who were detained have since been released.

“When people are released, they have been beaten and electrocuted so that they are hardly standing up,” said a local Christian.

Local church leaders believe recent pressure is a response to rumors of an increase in Christian converts in Egypt due to Christian satellite programming, although arrests go beyond converts to Coptic-born Christians.

Makeshift Bomb

In Cairo, a makeshift bomb placed under a car exploded outside a renowned Catholic church building in Zeitoun district on May 9, incinerating the vehicle but causing no injuries.

Panicked passersby called police when the small explosion caused the car to burst into flames outside Saint Mary Church, which Egypt’s Coptic community, citing numerous sightings of the Virgin Mary there in the late 1960s, considers a holy site.

Security forces arrived at the scene within minutes and sealed off the area. They found a second bomb, also planted beneath a car. Unable to disarm it, they were forced to detonate it in a controlled fashion, sources told Compass.

The explosion interrupted a wedding and a Bible study that were taking place inside the revered, historic building. Those in attendance were evacuated through a side gate as a precaution, reported Egyptian newspaper Watani. Boutros Gayed, the church’s priest, was unavailable for comment.

The bombs were rudimentary. Cell phones were used as detonators and placed with the explosive material into a bag containing shrapnel.

Police have yet to release information about possible suspects or motives, but newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm has stated security forces are investigating possible links to a Hezbollah cell, which uses similar explosive devices.

A spokesman for Hezbollah has denied its involvement, stating that the cell was focused on supporting Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and has never had plans to carry out operations in Egypt.

The head of the Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda, condemned the attack as criminal and pointed to sectarian motives.

“[The bombers] are attempting to tamper with the future of this homeland that they do not deserve to belong to,” he said, according to Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.

Similarities between this event and an explosion in February outside Al-Hussain Mosque, where one person was killed and 24 others wounded, have led to speculation that the attacks may be part of an attempt to inflame sectarian tensions.

Rumors also have been spread that “extremist Coptic groups” may have planted the devices in order to attract U.S. President Barack Obama’s attention to their plight on his planned June 4 visit to Cairo.

“This sounds like a ridiculous suggestion, because the Copts do not even respond to attacks against them,” said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of United Copts of Great Britain. “It is not in their agenda, and they have no precedence of violence.”

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAN: THREE CONVERTS ORDERED TO STOP ‘CHRISTIAN ACTIVITIES’


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.

 

Churches Pressured

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

SPACE: SATELLITES CRASH


In out of this world news, two satellites have crashed in orbit around the earth. The accident occurred 800 km above Siberia on Wednesday according to NASA. A massive debris cloud resulted from the collision of the two satellites.

The collision occurred between an Iridium commercial satellite (launched in 1997) and an obsolete Russian satellite (launched in 1993).

IRAQ: FLEEING CHRISTIANS FACE NEW HARDSHIPS IN TURKEY


As renewed violence in Mosul halts return, refugees wait in Turkish legal limbo.

ISTANBUL, November 14 (Compass Direct News) – In this Turkish city’s working-class neighborhood of Kurtulus, Arabic can be heard on the streets, signs are printed in the Arabic alphabet and Iraqis congregate in tea shops.

In 99-percent Muslim Turkey, most of these Iraqis are not Muslims. And they are not in Turkey by choice. They are Christian refugees who fled their homeland to escape the murderous violence that increasingly has been directed at them.

It is hard to tell how many of Mosul’s refugees from the recent wave of attacks have made their way to Istanbul, but finding these residents here is not hard. A middle-aged Iraqi refugee who fled Mosul five months ago now attends a Syrian Orthodox Church in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Tarlabasi, where gypsies, transvestites, and immigrants from Turkey’s east live in hopes of a better life in Istanbul.

Declining to give his name, the refugee said there is no future for Christians in Iraq and that nearly everyone he knew there wanted to leave the country. He said the only hope for Iraqi Christians is for Western countries to open their doors to Christian Iraqi refugees.

“We don’t have hope,” he said. “If these doors aren’t opened, we will be killed.”

Since October, violence in Mosul has pushed more than 12,000 Christians from their homes and left more than two dozen dead, according to U.N. and Christian organizations. In the face of Mosul violence, Iraqi Christians flee to Turkey before settling permanently in another country, usually in a place where their family has gone out before them.

 

Christian Sisters Killed

Weeks after the mass exodus of Mosul Christians to surrounding villages, Turkey and other nations, around one-third of families reportedly have returned due to the presence of 35,000 army and police and the Iraqi government offering cash grants of up to $800.

But those returning Christians were shaken again on Wednesday (Nov. 12), when Islamic militants stormed into the house of two Syrian Catholic sisters, Lamia’a Sabih and Wala’a Saloha, killing them and severely injuring their mother. They then bombed their house and detonated a second explosive when the police arrived, which killed three more.

The Christian family had recently returned after having fled Mosul. Many believe this attack will deter other Christians from returning to Mosul, and there are reports of Christians again leaving the area.

There has been a steady exodus of Christians from Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991. The church in Iraq dates from the beginning of Christianity, but the population has plummeted by 50 percent in the last 20 years. The outflow of Iraqi Christians spiked in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion.

Although Iraq as a whole has seen a dramatic decrease in violence due to last year’s surge in U.S. troops, the flight of Christians to Turkey has grown. One-third of the 18,000 refugees who registered in Turkey last year are from Iraq. In Syria, an estimated 40 percent of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have fled Iraq are Christians, though they make up only about 3 percent of Iraq’s population.

Monsignor Francois Yakan, the 50-year-old leader of the Chaldean Church in Turkey, said all Iraqi refugees are undergoing hardships regardless of religion, but that the situation is especially difficult for Christians since there is less support for them in Turkey.

“Muslims have the same difficulty as Christians, but there are more foundations to assist them,” he said. “The government notices Muslim immigrants, but nobody pays attention to us.”

Yakan travels to other countries to raise awareness of the plight of Iraqi Christians, trying to marshal the support of government and church leaders – last week he traveled to France, Romania and Germany. If Western governments don’t wake up to this crisis, he said, the results could be catastrophic.

“People don’t know the plight of Iraqi Christians. They have no government, no soldiers, and no power,” he said. “Christianity in Iraq is ending. Why aren’t they noticing this?”

 

Strangers in Strange Land

The unnamed Iraqi refugee in Tarlabasi said not even pleas from Iraqi priests can make them stay.

“The church in Iraq can’t stop the people from leaving because they can’t guarantee their security,” he said.

He came to Istanbul with his family but still has an adult son and daughter in the city. He hopes to join his brother in the United States soon.

A group of Iraqi refugees at a tea shop in the Kurtulus area of Istanbul interrupted their card game to talk to Compass of their troubled lives.

“We can’t find any work,” said Baghdad-born Iraqi Jalal Toma, who acted as the translator for the group. He pointed to a young man at the table and said, “He works moving boxes and carrying things, and they pay him half as much as a Turk for a day’s work.”

All of the men are Chaldean Christians, a Catholic Eastern-rite church whose historical homeland is in northern Iraq, and came from Mosul in recent months. They are chronically under-employed and rely on financial help from family members abroad to make ends meet.

They had to flee their homes at a moment’s notice, taking along their families but leaving behind their cars, houses and most of their possessions. The men hope to join family members who live in foreign countries, but they harbor few hopes that they can ever return to Iraq again.

 

Offering Relief

Work is scarce for refugees and hard to come by legally in Turkey. To survive, most Iraqi Christians rely on money from families abroad or the handful of local church charities that struggle to keep up with the overwhelming volume of refugees, such as the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program, an ecumenical umbrella group that unites the city’s parishes to assist migrants and asylum seekers.

Another such charity is Kasdar, the Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Organization, run by Yakan, the Chaldean Church leader in Turkey.

He launched Kasdar two years ago to provide a safety net for Christian refugees who live in Turkey’s legal limbo. Kasdar assists all Christians regardless of denomination or faith tradition and has 16 volunteers from an equally diverse background.

Yakan sees thousands of refugees pass through Istanbul each year. Most of them are Chaldean, and he knows of 60-70 people who fled due to the recent October violence in Mosul. He travels constantly to visit Chaldean refugees scattered throughout the country.

When refugees first arrive in Turkey, they must register with the United Nations as asylum seekers. The Turkish police then assign them to one of 35 cities to live in as they wait to receive official refugee status. These Christians face the biggest hardships since they don’t have access to the same social resources as refugees in Istanbul, said Metin Corabatir, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Turkey.

“The Chaldean population faces problems in Turkey, especially due to the policy of resettling them to satellite cities,” said Corabatir. “The Chaldeans in Istanbul have NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] and churches to help them, but in satellite cities there is no church or community to help them.”

Most refugees send their children to school at a local center run by Caritas, a Catholic confederation of relief, development and social service organizations. Here, Iraq children receive education and lessons in basic vocational skills.

The wait for legal status can be as short as a few months or a couple of years. But complicated circumstances can push back the wait to five years, 10 years, or even 17 years – as it is now for a man who fled during the first Gulf War, Yakan of the Chaldean Church said.

Another church leader who has helped Christian refugees is 70-year-old Monsignor Yusuf Sag, vicar general of the Syrian Catholic Church in Turkey. His 350-person congregation assembles packets of clothes and food for the refugees.

Many who come to Sag also seek medical help. He has connections with doctors throughout the city, both Muslim and Christian, who offer basic treatment to refugees free of charge. Sag said he tries to help all who come to him, without asking them of their denomination or even their religion.

“Their situation is not a Christian problem, but a human problem,” he said.

Often Iraqi Christians work illegally, where they are vulnerable to extortion. Refugee workers in Istanbul said registered asylum seekers can work legally, but it is not uncommon for employers to garnish their wages or withhold them completely, with the foreigners getting little protection from police.

The Turkish government charges a refugee a residence tax of US$460 a year and will not allow them to leave the country until it is paid, making them remain in the country even longer. With all these hurdles to finding stable employment, many Iraqi refugees are never too far from homelessness.

“There was a family we found living on the streets – a husband, wife and two children,” Yakan said. “They have lived in Istanbul for six months and couldn’t even afford to pay rent.”

His foundation found the family an apartment and assisted them with rent, but they only have enough resources to help for two months.

Kasdar gave similar assistance to 54 families in October. But the organization can only help for a few months at a time and assist the most vulnerable refugees.

Report from Compass Direct News

CHINA IN SPACE: First Chinese Space Walk


Having faked information relating to the Shenzhou launch last week, the question some are asking is whether the first Chinese space walk is real. The Chinese reported on the successful launch and what was said between the astronauts before it had even occurred.

I would think that it probably is. The walk took place some 343 km over the earth.

Commander of the space mission, Zhai Zhigang, left the Shenzhou VII spacecraft at 4.43 pm Beijing time and floated in orbit for about 15 minutes. China became the third country to have an astronaut complete a spacewalk and continues China’s rise as a space and super power.

China now has an objective of building a space station. Two unmanned spacecraft and a manned mission to begin construction of the space station are to be launched by 2010.

The Shenzhou VII spacecraft was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China late Thursday.

The spacecraft is scheduled to return to earth at about 5.00 pm on Sunday Beijing time and is expected to land in the northern Inner Mongolia region.

The footage below shows the first Chinese space walk: