Egyptian Christian women forced to marry, convert to Islam


Coptic Christian women in Egypt are being forced to marry and convert to Islam and that oppression is part of a larger pattern of persecution against Christians facilitated by the Egyptian government, according to two recent reports, writes Baptist Press.

"Cases of abduction, forced conversion and marriage are usually accompanied by acts of violence which include rape, beatings, deprivation of food and other forms of physical and mental abuse," said a new assessment by Christian Solidarity International and the Coptic Foundation for Human Rights.

At the same time, the 2009 U.S. State Department report on international religious freedom noted the Egyptian government fails to prosecute crimes against Copts and even has taken a hand in destroying church property and, in one case, a government official reportedly raped a woman who had converted from Islam to Christianity.

About 90 percent of the Egyptian population is Sunni Muslim, and the rest primarily identify themselves as Coptic Christians, according to the Human Rights Watch report "Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedom." Copts typically are underprivileged and experience discrimination.

Egyptian sex traffickers entice Coptic Christian women from low-income families by promising an escape from poverty, then force the women into Muslim "marriages" or outright slavery, according to the CSI/CFHR report.

"Such abuse remains covered in a cloak of silence and tacit acceptance, even though it is against the constitutional affirmations of civil rights," the report said.

Once a Coptic girl is coerced into marriage and Islamic conversion, her family will not take her back, and if she leaves her "husband," she is considered a "disgrace" to her family, the report said. In addition, the Coptic Orthodox Church excommunicates female members who wed Muslim men, the State Department said.

Since Islam is the "religion of state" in Egypt, conversion to Islam is easy, while returning to Christianity is unacceptable, the HRW report said. The Civil Status Department, which issues national identity cards, sometimes refuses to give Coptic women a new card identifying her as Christian since it is considered apostasy for a Coptic woman to leave Islam, even to return to her religion of origin.

Egyptian law requires every citizen to have an identity card for purposes such as voting, employment and education.

Most of the cases of Coptic women being coerced into marriage are not reported and "observers, including human rights groups, find it extremely difficult to determine whether compulsion was used, as most cases involve a female Copt who converts to Islam when she marries a Muslim male," the State Department report said.

In two examples of coerced conversion, CSI/CFHR reported Nov. 10:

— An Egyptian woman was raped and beaten since she would not have sex with the man she was forced to marry. The Coptic cross on her wrist was later removed with acid.

— Another woman was forced to marry a Muslim lawyer and work for him in "slave-like conditions" for five years.

John Eibner, CSI’s chief executive officer, urged President Obama in a letter to combat the trafficking of Christian women and girls in Egypt and to make sure the U.S. makes this issue a priority in its relations with Egypt.

"Trafficking of Christian women in Egypt is not a new phenomenon…. But this problem has now reached boiling point within Egypt’s Coptic community, which views it as symptomatic of a much broader pattern of religious persecution," Eibner said in his letter.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Muslim Extremists Attack Worship Service in Uganda


Church member taking photos beaten, building damaged.

NAIROBI, Kenya, November 11 (CDN) — About 40 Muslim extremists with machetes and clubs tried to break into a Sunday worship service outside Uganda’s capital city of Kampala on Nov. 1, leaving a member of the congregation with several injuries and damaging the church building.

Eyewitnesses said the extremist mob tried to storm into World Possessor’s Church International in Namasuba at 11 a.m. as the church worshipped.

“The church members were taken by a big surprise, as this happened during worship time,” said Pastor Henry Zaake. “It began with an unusual noise coming from outside, and soon I saw the bricks falling away one by one. Immediately I knew that it was an attack from the Muslims who had earlier sent signals of an imminent attack.”

The pastor said the disturbance brought the worship service to a standstill.

“There was a tug-of-war at the entrance to the church as members tried to thwart the Muslim aggression from making headway inside the church,” he told Compass.

A member of the congregation who was taking photos of the worship service – and then the attack – was beaten, sustaining several injuries, church leaders said. He was later taken to a nearby clinic for treatment. During the pandemonium, some church members were able to escape through a rear door.

Pastor Umar Mulinde added that nearby residents helped repel the attack.

“At the scene of the incident were rowdy Muslims with machetes and clubs ready to destroy the church,” Pastor Mulinde said. “The good neighbors of the church also came in, and we were able to overpower [the assailants].”

Police arrived and put a stop to the assault, but officers did not arrest anyone, church leaders said.

“We have reported the matter to the central police station, and we are surprised that no action has been taken,” Pastor Zaake said. “So far no person has been arrested as a result of this mayhem. It is as if the police are not concerned about our security and lives.”

Many in the church are now living in fear, he said, noting that last Sunday (Nov. 8), attendance decreased from 250 to 100 people.

“Since the attack we have been receiving a lot of threats from the Muslims,” Pastor Zaake said. “There is a conspiracy that we can’t understand. This trend really gives me sleepless nights.”

Area Muslims have long opposed the existence of the church in Namasuba, complaining that church members try to convert area Muslims. Christian sources said the initial pretext for damaging the church building was that its outdoor stairway encroached on the alley; the estimated US$535 (1 million Uganda shillings) in damages were limited to the stairway. The sources said that when the complaint of the stairway encroaching on the alley fell on deaf ears, local Muslim and community leaders criticized the church for making too much noise.

Namasuba is predominantly Islamic, with some estimates of Muslim adherents going as high as 80 percent of the population.

Pastor Zaake said area Muslims have been holding meetings at night, which he suspects concern plans to paralyze Christian activities.

“It looks like they are planning for another attack, especially in light of the threatening messages I have been receiving on my mobile phone from anonymous senders,” a worried Pastor Zaake told Compass by phone.

The church has been meeting in Namasuba since March. It is located four kilometers from Kampala on a quarter-acre parcel.

Although the Ugandan constitution guarantees religious freedom, authorities hardly prosecute Muslim attacks against Christians, church leaders said.

“The police silence on the whole issue is worrying and leaves a lot to be desired,” Pastor Zaake said.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians Concerned over Acquittals in Orissa, India Violence


Lax investigation, prosecution, lack of witness protection cited as reasons for injustice.

NEW DELHI, September 30 (CDN) — Only 24 people have been convicted a year after anti-Christian mayhem took place in India’s Orissa state, while the number of acquittals has risen to 95, compounding the sense of helplessness and frustration among surviving Christians.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, called the trials “a travesty of justice.”

Last month a non-profit group, the Peoples Initiative for Justice and Peace (PIJP), reportedly found that as many as 2,500 complaints were filed with police following the violence in August-September 2008 in the eastern state’s Kandhamal district. The violence killed at least 100 people and burned more than 4,500 houses and over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions. It also rendered 50,000 people, mostly Christian, homeless.

Police, however, registered only 827 complaints and arrested fewer than 700 people, even though 11,000 people were named as attackers in those complaints, according to a PIJP survey.

“The manner of the judicial processes in the Kandhamal fast-track courts is tragic where all too many people have managed to escape conviction for crimes as serious as conspiracy for brutal, premeditated murder and deliberate arson,” Dayal told Compass.

Among those acquitted was Manoj Pradhan, who allegedly led mobs that killed Christians and burned their houses a few months before he became a state legislator from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Facing charges in five cases of murder and six of arson, Pradhan has been acquitted in three cases.

On Thursday (Sept. 24), the judge of Fast Track Court-II, C.R. Das, acquitted Pradhan and another suspect, Mantu Nayak, on charges of killing Khageswar Digal for refusing to “reconvert” to Hinduism, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI). Digal was a 60-year-old Catholic and resident of Shankarakhol area in Chakapada Block in Kandhamal.

“The court acquitted the BJP MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly] and Nayak due to lack of proper evidence against them,” Special Public Prosecutor Pratap Patra told PTI.

The Rev. Ajay Singh, an activist from the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, said Digal’s son testified in court that he was witness to the killing of his father and knew the killers, and yet the accused were acquitted.

“It was a brutal murder, possibly a case of human sacrifice,” Singh said.

Digal was dragged from a vehicle before being killed on Sept. 24 last year – one month after the assassination of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists), which triggered the violence as Hindu extremists wrongly blamed Christians.

Singh spoke to the son of the deceased Digal, Rajendra Digal, who said his parents left their village after the violence and took shelter in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.

The elder Digal, who owned a grocery shop and 35 goats, returned to his village to see his house and livestock. After selling some of the goats, he boarded a public bus to Phulbani, Kandhamal district headquarters, to start his journey back to Bhubaneswar around noon on Sept. 24. As the bus started, however, some assailants allegedly led by Pradhan stopped the bus and dragged Digal out. They also broke his leg.

The attackers were said to have taken Digal to his village, where they looted his shop. Then they allegedly took him and eight of his goats to a nearby forest, where they feasted on the goat meat throughout the night.

When Rajendra Digal heard about it, he informed police, who allegedly took no interest in the complaint. Twelve days later, his father’s body, naked and burned with acid, was found 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the village. His genitals had also been chopped off.

Rajendra Digal said he believes his father may have been the victim of human sacrifice involving ritual feasting and torture.

Shoddy Probe, Lack of Evidence

A representative of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) said the police had been conducting investigations improperly.

The CLA source pointed out that in another Fast-Track Court-I case in which Pradhan was one of the accused, police had wrongly recorded the age of the informant, Bhutia Digal.

“The court observed that if the police could not cite the age of the informant correctly, how could they have investigated the case properly?” said the source, adding that such discrepancies were found in far too many cases.

During the violence in August-September 2008, the BJP was part of the ruling coalition with a local party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). The latter recently broke ties with the Hindu nationalist BJP, blaming it for violence in March, a month before the state assembly election.

The BJP lost the April-May election, and the BJD emerged as the stand-alone ruling party. It is believed that the state administration began taking action against the assailants only after the coalition split in March – six months too late, which possibly provided enough time for suspects to remove evidence and threaten witnesses.

Witnesses are still being threatened or bribed, according to rights groups.

On Thursday (Sept. 24), the day the BJP legislator was acquitted, the fast-track court also released five others accused of arson in the Tikabali area of Kandhamal in a separate case, reported the PTI.

Singh said the witnesses were either intimidated or bribed and therefore turned hostile to prosecutors in court. Friends of the accused took the witnesses to the court in their vehicle, he pointed out.

Dayal said the Orissa High Court should have taken notice of the increasing number of acquittals.

“A man now an MLA seems to be beyond the law,” he said. “I would demand a high-powered judicial review by the High Court of Orissa itself, or failing that, by civil society, which should set up an independent commission of retired judges and senior lawyers.”

Singh said police investigations and prosecutions were a “sham.” There is also “a pressing need for witness protection,” he said.

He added that there were reports of witnesses being intimidated and threatened in various villages, such as Dodingia, K. Nuagam, Phiringia and Solesoru. “Police are not entertaining complaints of the threat to the witnesses,” Singh said.

Dayal highlighted three essential problems: The quality of the charge-sheets prepared by police; the role of the public prosecutor in pressing the charges as prepared by police; and the circumstances under which eyewitnesses, “often sons and daughters of those killed, cannot attest to the truth or are forced into silence,” he said.

“India does not have a witness-protection program, and surely Kandhamal has none at all,” Dayal said. “Witnesses have to pass through an aggressive environment which affectively silences them. They are human beings and fear future violence, having seen brutal violence in the past.”

Singh and Dayal demanded that the cases be heard outside Kandhamal, preferably outside Orissa state.

SIDEBAR

First Life Sentences Handed Down for Orissa, India Killing

NEW DELHI, September 30 (Compass Direct News) – A fast-track court in Orissa state on Sept. 23 delivered its first life sentences for those convicted of murder in 2008 violence in Kandhamal district, sentencing five people to life imprisonment for their involvement in the killing of Pastor Akbar Digal.

Digal, 40, pastor of a Baptist church in Tatamaha village under Raikia police jurisdiction in Kandhamal district, was killed on Aug. 26, 2008 after refusing the slayers’ demand that he forsake Christianity and convert to Hinduism. His body was reportedly cut to pieces and then burned.

He is survived by his wife, Ludhia Digal, and five children.

Additional Sessions Judge Sobhan Kumar Das of Fast Track Court-I at Phulbani district headquarters sentenced Sabita Pradhan, 30; Papu Pradhan, 30; Abinash Pradhan, 29; Dharmaraj Pradhan, 32; and Mania Pradhan, 28, to life in prison and a fine of 5,000 rupees (US$104). The five were arrested after Pastor Digal’s wife filed a First Information Report on Aug. 29, 2008.

Previous to these sentences, two fast-track courts had sentenced 12 people to prison for terms ranging only from four to six years. The government set up the two fast-track courts to try nearly 900 cases related to anti-Christian violence that erupted in August 2008. The first conviction was determined on June 30.

The special Phulbani court also sentenced six others to three years’ rigorous imprisonment on Sept. 22 for an arson attack on a journalist’s house in Kandhamal’s Phiringia village on Dec. 12, 2007.

Police had arrested 11 people in this case, but the court acquitted five for “lack of evidence.” Convicted were Ganpati Kanhar, Rabindra Kanhar, Parmeshwar Kanhar, Daleswar Kanhar, Tuba Kanhar and Vijay Kanhar, whose ages range from 25 to 40 years. They were also fined 4,000 rupees (US$83) each.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Muslim Militants Slay Long-Time Christian in Somalia


Al Shabaab extremists shoot 69-year-old after finding Bibles on him at checkpoint.

NAIROBI, Kenya, September 18 (CDN) — The faith journey of a long-time underground Christian in Somalia ended in tragedy this week when Islamic militants controlling a security checkpoint killed him after finding Bibles in his possession.

Militants from the Muslim extremist al Shabaab killed 69-year-old Omar Khalafe on Tuesday (Sept. 15) at a checkpoint they controlled 10 kilometers from Merca, a Christian source told Compass. A port city on the Indian Ocean 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Mogadishu, Merca is the main city of the Lower Shabele region.

Leaving Mogadishu by bus at 7:30 a.m., Khalafe was carrying 25 Somali Bibles he hoped to deliver to an underground fellowship in Somalia. By 10:30 a.m. he had arrived at the checkpoint controlled by al Shabaab, a rebel group linked with al Qaeda that has taken over large parts of the war-torn country.

A source in Somalia who spoke on condition of anonymity told Compass that the passengers were ordered to disembark from the bus for inspection. The Islamic militants found 25 Somali Bibles in one of the passengers’ bags; when they asked to whom the Bibles belonged, the passengers responded with a chilled silence.

As the search continued, the militants found several photos in the bag. The source told Compass that the militants began trying to match the photos with the faces of the passengers, who were all seized by fear as they knew the inevitable fate of the owner.

The Islamic extremists saw that the elderly Khalafe resembled a face in one of the photos, the source said. They asked Khalafe if he was the owner of the Bibles; he kept quiet. They shot him to death.

Khalafe had been a Christian for 45 years, sources said.

The body was taken to Merca, according to the source, and there the al Shabaab militants placed the 25 Somali Bibles on top of Khalafe’s body as a warning to others.

Christian sources said that at 4 p.m. an al shabaab militant was heard saying on Radio Shabele, “Today we caught Omar, a Somali Christian, with 25 Bibles at Merca checkpoint. He has been converting Somalis to Christianity, and today he has been shot dead at 12:30 p.m.”

Khalafe’s family in Mogadishu learned of his death through the radio report, the source said. The family members then contacted a leader of an underground church in Somalia and informed him of the murder.

“The news of the death of Omar shocked me,” the underground church leader in Somalia told Compass by telephone. “We have long served Christians in Somalia. It is unfortunate that the Bibles did not reach the intended audience. I am sure if they had not got the picture, our brother would be still alive.”

Khalafe was a Somali Bantu who had served with various Christian agencies. Underground church members said he was instrumental in the spread of Christianity and had baptized many converts from Islam in Somalia.

He left behind a widow and seven children. His family was unable to participate in his burial due to the risk of being killed, according to the source, who said one of Khalafe’s sons said, “It is unfortunate that we were not there to give our dad a decent burial. God knows how He will reward him.”

Already enforcing sharia (Islamic law) in large parts of southern Somalia that they control, al Shabaab rebels have mounted an armed effort to topple President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s Transitional Federal Government.

Last month al Shabaab extremists seeking evidence that a Somali man had converted from Islam to Christianity shot him dead near the Somali border with Kenya, according to underground Christians in the war-torn nation. The rebels killed 41-year-old Ahmed Matan in Bulahawa, Somalia on Aug. 18, said Abdikadir Abdi Ismael, a former leader of a secret Christian fellowship in Somalia to which Matan belonged. Matan had been a member of the underground church since 2001.

In Mahadday Weyne, 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, al Shabaab Islamists on July 20 shot to death another convert from Islam, Mohammed Sheikh Abdiraman, at 7 a.m., eyewitnesses told Compass. They said the Islamic extremists appeared to have been hunting the convert from Islam.

The sources told Compass that Abdiraman was the leader of an underground “cell group” of Christians in Somalia. He is survived by two children, ages 15 and 10; his wife died three years ago due to illness.

Intent on “cleansing” Somalia of all Christians, al Shabaab militia are monitoring converts from Islam especially where Christian workers had provided medical aid, such as Johar, Jamame, Kismayo and Beledweyne, sources said. Mahadday Weyne, 22 kilometers (14 miles) north of Johar, is the site of a former Christian-run hospital.

The militants reportedly beheaded seven Christians on July 10. Reuters reported that they were killed in Baidoa for being Christians and “spies.”

On Feb. 21 al shabaab militants beheaded two young boys in Somalia because their Christian father refused to divulge information about a church leader, according to Musa Mohammed Yusuf, the 55-year-old father who was living in a Kenya refugee camp when he spoke with Compass. He had been the leader of an underground church in Yonday village, 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Kismayo in Somalia.

Militants from al Shabaab entered Yonday village on Feb. 20, went to Yusuf’s house and interrogated him on his relationship with Salat Mberwa, leader of a fellowship of 66 Somali Christians who meet at his home at an undisclosed city. Yusuf told them he knew nothing of Mberwa and had no connection with him. The Islamic extremists left but said they would return the next day.

Yusuf fled for Kismayo, and at noon the next day, as his wife was making lunch for their children in Yonday, the al Shabaab militants showed up. Batula Ali Arbow, Yusuf’s wife, said the Islamic extremists took hold of three of her sons – 11-year-old Abdi Rahaman Musa Yusuf, 12-year-old Hussein Musa Yusuf and Abdulahi Musa Yusuf, 7.

They killed the two older boys as the youngest one returned crying to his mother.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Lao soldiers decapitated a two-month-old girl, Christians suffer


A human rights organization has just learned that Lao soldiers captured, mutilated and decapitated a two-month-old girl during recent military attacks against Hmong and Laotian civilians. Survivors of the attack said the infant was used for target practice, reports Jeremy Reynalds, correspondent for ASSIST News Service.

Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, bordered by Burma and People’s Republic of China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west.

Speaking in a news release from human rights organization International Christian Concern (ICC), Vaughn Vang, the Director of the Lao Hmong Human Rights Council, said, “We are told, by some of the Lao Hmong survivors of the recent military attacks in Laos, that the LPDR (Lao Peoples Democratic Republic) soldiers of the LPA (Lao Peoples Army) used the … Lao Hmong girl, while she was still alive, for target practice … once she was captured and tied up; they mutilated her little body and continued to fire their weapons, over and over … until her head just eventually came off after so many bullets severed her head.”

ICC said the Center for Public Policy Analysis (CPPA) reported the incidents, claiming that eight children were captured and 26 Hmong and Laotian civilians were murdered during a series of four major attacks over the past month. They were apparently designed to stifle “religious and political dissidents” ahead of a visit by U.S. Senator Jim Webb. Christian Hmong were mostly certainly among those attacked as they are often targeted specifically by the regime.

With ages ranging from two months to eight years old, ICC reported that the captured children remain a concern to Vang, who said that their whereabouts were unknown and that they would likely be tortured and killed by the soldiers. The decapitated child’s body was found next to her mother, who had also been tortured and killed by Lao soldiers. A number of the female victims were raped and tortured before they were killed. The most recent attack occurred on Aug. 13.

Unfortunately, this level of brutality against women and children is not uncommon for Lao soldiers, ICC reported. It is standard procedure for soldiers to surround and isolate pockets of Hmong people and starve them out to be killed when they venture out to forage.

Philip Smith, the Executive Director of CPPA, told ICC of video footage smuggled out of Laos in 2004 that documents the aftermath of the killing and brutalization of five Hmong children, four of them girls, on May 19 2004.

That footage was used in the graphic documentary, “Hunted Like Animals,” by Rebecca Sommer. Clips can be viewed at rebeccasommer.org, but they contain highly graphic content.

Natalia Rain, ICC’s Regional Manager for East Asia, said in the news release, “Rights groups have rightly called the acts the Lao military commits against children and civilians war crimes. Let the international community not be guilty of the same by its silence in the face of a regime who has already been allowed so much room that it has reached the heights of sadism in the torture and decapitation of a two-month-old little girl.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

TURKEY: ‘DEEP STATE’ SUSPECTED OF SILENCING WITNESSES


Two key figures in Malatya murder trial again fail to show despite court orders.

MALATYA, Turkey, July 21 (Compass Direct News) – Under the pretext of recovering from medical treatment he received earlier this month, a key suspect in the murders of three Christians in southeast Turkey dodged court for the second time, further stalling the legal process, prosecuting attorneys said.

Journalist Varol Bulent Aral, one of the suspected “middlemen” who allegedly incited five young men to brutally murder Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske at the Zirve Publishing Co. in Malatya two years ago, again failed to show at a hearing on Friday (July 17).

The three Christians were bound and tortured before they were murdered on April 18, 2007 at the Christian publishing house, where they worked. Suspects Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, Abuzer Yildirim and alleged ring-leader Emre Gunaydin were caught trying to escape from the scene of the crime.

Aral was admitted for mental health treatment a few days after the last hearing in June and was released from the Adiyaman penitentiary hospital on July 8. The gendarmerie, however, failed to produce him in court on Friday (July 17) claiming that he was recovering from treatment.

Prosecuting attorneys pointed out that the reason the gendarmerie did not bring him to the June hearing from the penitentiary in Adana, nearly 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Malatya, was due to lack of funds – yet the gendarmerie seemed to have no trouble finding funds to take him for treatment in Adiyaman, which is the same distance from Adana as is Malatya.

“Last time [in June] they said they couldn’t bring him because of insufficient funds,” said prosecuting lawyer Erdal Dogan. “This is unacceptable… now in the same way they make excuses, saying they took him to the hospital. It seems they are mocking us, especially since previous health reports said that he was in good health.”

Prosecuting attorneys also pointed out that it was suspicious that Aral was admitted to the hospital only days after a court order that he appear at the July 17 hearing.

“It seems to us that they are trying to silence him by making him evade court,” said prosecuting attorney Dogan of the “deep state” officials that he and his colleagues believe masterminded the murders of the three Christians. “I truly hope that is not the case.”

Charged with high-security cases, the gendarmerie are holding Aral, but some believe the gendarmerie and its intelligence services are connected with Turkey’s “deep state.”

In the last year, nearly 150 people have been arrested in Turkey under suspicion of being connected to a cabal of retired generals and politicians called Ergenekon, accused of trying to overthrow Turkey’s Islamic-leaning but secular government. Some key figures of the Ergenekon case are believed to be behind the Malatya slayings and the murders of Italian Catholic priest Andrea Santoro, killed in the Black Sea coastal town of Trabzon in February 2006, and Armenian Christian editor Hrant Dink, who was shot in front of the weekly Agos three months before the slaughter in Malatya.

The Malatya and Ergenekon prosecutors, however, are still researching links between the murders and have yet to try them jointly.

Aral has been arrested in conjunction with both cases. In a previous statement, he had complained that retired Gen. Veli Kucuk, who has also been arrested in connection to Ergenekon, had threatened him about testifying. Aral testified to the Ergenekon case state judges privately in May, but the content of his testimony has not been publicized.

Judges have found the phone numbers of ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz and Sevgi Erenerol, spokesperson for the Turkish Orthodox Church – a Turkish nationalist denomination – in Aral’s personal phone book. Both figures are accused of playing leading roles in Ergenekon and spearheaded prosecution of Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal for speaking to people about their faith.

While in prison, alleged ring-leader Gunaydin testified to the state prosecutor that Aral had contacted him and instructed him to carry out the murders. Gunaydin had also testified that Huseyin Yelki, who worked as a volunteer at the Zirve office, had planned details of the crime with him.

Yelki is still obligated to appear at every court hearing and continues to be a suspected middleman. Thus far, however, his testimony has yielded no clear indication of his role.

Burcu Polat, Gunaydin’s girlfriend, also failed to appear in court on Friday, telling police that she was not ready because she is a student in Balikesir, in northwest Turkey. The prosecution noted in court that universities are not in session and requested that the court find her guilty of not fulfilling her duty to appear in court.

The court again has ordered Aral and Polat to appear in court at the next hearing on Aug. 21.

Report from Compass Direct News 

IRAN: AUTHORITIES PRESSURE FATHER OF CONVERT


Government trying to quell Christian son’s human rights activities.

LOS ANGELES, May 20 (Compass Direct News) – In an attempt to silence a Christian human rights activist living in England, Iranian authorities arrested and interrogated his Muslim father for six days before releasing him yesterday .

Abdul Zahra Vashahi, a retired 62-year-old suffering a heart condition, was arrested on Thursday (May 14) in Iran’s southwestern city of Bandar Mahshahr and interrogated about the human rights activities of his son, a Christian convert who has been living in England since 2003. His son, John (Reza) Vashahi, converted to Christianity while in England and in 2008 founded the Iranian Minorities Human Rights Organization (IMHRO).

In February the elder Vashahi had received a call from local authorities telling him that if his son didn’t stop his activities, they would arrest him instead.

While his father was in custody, authorities asked the elder Vashahi many questions about his son’s activities and had him fill out forms with detailed information about his extended family and friends.

“He is very tired, because the interrogations were very long,” his son told Compass. “All the questions were about me.”

The younger Vashahi said the Iranian government started putting increased pressure on his family, whom he has not seen in six years, since he founded IMHRO.

“It is a good example of harassment even outside the country,” Vashahi told Compass by telephone today. “It is just showing how far the government will go if we let them. Inside we can’t talk, and we come to Europe and still they want to silence us; it’s a very worrying sign.”

Vashahi, unlike his father, was involved in politics when he lived in Iran. His family belongs to Iran’s Arab-speaking community, the Ahwazi, most of whom live in the southwestern province of Khuzestan.

He said that even when he was living there, police had come to his father’s workplace to ask him questions, but that after he fled the country six years ago, the pressure seemed to have stopped. It began anew when he became an outspoken Christian campaigning for the rights of minorities in Iran and especially with the establishment of IMHRO, he said.

The activist is an active member of Amnesty International, and through his own organization he publicizes Iran’s human rights violations of minorities, especially Christians. He has also started a blog called “Jesus for Arabs.”

Fighting for Minority Rights

Vashahi acknowledged that his family, which is Muslim, was never happy with his choice of faith or vocation.

Asked whether he believed the government arrested his father because of his faith or his work, the younger Vashahi said, “I think it’s both, because part of my human rights activity is in regard to Christians in Iran, and we’ve been in touch with Christians and persecuted churches.”

The 30-year-old activist said that when the Revolutionary Guard arrested his father, they confiscated all of his books and compact discs, as well as a computer and his sister’s university dentistry textbooks.

“It’s a bad situation, and I hope we find some solution,” Vashahi said, “No one has the right to talk about anything in Iran. Suppression of the church is increasing in Iran; they don’t want us to talk about that. They don’t want us to talk about it inside, and also they want to silence us outside.”

Vashahi said that despite the government pressure, he is not planning to stop his human rights activism.

“I’m not going to be silent, because if I do, then I’m accepting their logic, which means I caused the arrest of my dad,” Vashahi said. “My dad is innocent, and that system is wrong to arrest someone instead of somebody else.”

In 2008, when deciding to establish the IMHRO, he said he felt torn between confronting Iran’s injustices and wanting to ignore them from his comfortable, safe distance.

“Another part of me was saying, ‘you are safe now, but you should do your fair share, you should make noise, and if people inside can’t talk and you are outside and you don’t want to talk, how will people learn what is happening?’” he said. “I felt responsibility, and in the end that part won.”

In a phone conversation with his mother yesterday while his father was sleeping to recover from his time in prison, he said he felt that she was choosing her words very carefully. She told him not to contact them or other family and friends.

“She emphasized that we are all Muslims, and that this is an Islamic country,” Vashahi said. “So she was giving me hints that it [the arrest] had to do with the change of religion.”

Although there were no official charges against his father, Vashahi said it is possible that authorities still could take him to court or detain him again for more interrogation.

“I hope this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “In fact, they’ve taken my family as hostage. They did this type of policy to other people and they’ve always failed, and I don’t know why they keep doing it, because people like me they are not going to stop. Others didn’t stop, and they’re just bringing more condemnation on themselves and exposing themselves to more condemnation in the eyes of the world.”

New Wave of Arrests

Compass has learned of four confirmed arrests of Christians in the last two weeks in the capital city of Tehran, while sources said a new wave of arrests has rolled across the country.

Authorities have been warning arrested Christians not to speak to foreign news agencies.

“The government is treating people like they don’t want them to talk,” said a source. “The government is really afraid of international news agencies, they really don’t like them. That is why they put pressure on the believers, and they are really scared.”

Although in most cases of arrests and interrogations Christians have been released with no physical harm, a source said in some instances they were told to sign papers that they would stop Christian activities and were threatened if they continued.

“It’s happening everywhere,” said the source. “This is the strategy of the government. They are doing it everywhere.”

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, are in their second month of detention at the notorious Evin prison house in Tehran, accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings.”

Report from Compass Direct News

COLOMBIA: SIX MONTHS LATER, PASTOR STILL MISSING


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News