Coptic Blogger in Egypt Threatens Hunger Strike


Authorities deny Christian’s application for release.

ISTANBUL, November 9 (CDN) — A Coptic Christian blogger in Egypt held in prison for more than a year without charge said today he will go on a hunger strike unless authorities grant his next application for release.

Hani Nazeer, a 28-year-old high school social worker from Qena, Egypt and author of the blog “Karz El Hob,” received word today that his latest application for release, sent to the Ministry of the Interior a week ago, was denied. His attorneys said they would re-apply for his release tomorrow.

The interior ministry did not “supply the grounds for refusal” according to Rawda Ahamad, Nazeer’s lead defense attorney.

“He has no charges against him,” Ahamad said. “He is not a criminal. He must be released immediately. He’s an innocent man – anyone exposed to this severe injustice would do the same.”

On Oct. 3, 2008, Nazeer was arrested by Egypt’s State Security Investigations (SSI) and sent to Burj Al-Arab prison. Although police never charged him with any crime, Nazeer has been detained for more than a year under Egypt’s administrative imprisonment law.

Nazeer ran afoul of SSI officers a few days before his arrest when a group of local teenagers visited his website and clicked on a link to an online copy of “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,” a novel written under the pseudonym “Father Utah.” The book is a response to “Azazil,” a novel by Yusuf Zidane, critical of Christianity.

Insulting religion is illegal in Egypt, but the law is enforced unequally. Zidane’s critique of Christianity garnered him fame and awards throughout the Arab world. Nazeer’s website link cost him his freedom, despite the fact that police have never publicly produced any evidence linking Nazeer to Utah’s work. After Nazeer was arrested, posts continued on Utah’s website.

Nazeer has reported to his attorneys that he has been placed in prison with felons, some of them violent. He also claims that prison authorities have pressured him to convert to Islam.

Gamel Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, the group representing Nazeer, stood by his client’s accusations, saying police have urged inmates to suggest to Nazeer that officers would work to free him if he were to convert to Islam.

Nazeer’s situation is complicated by the fact that his writings upset both Islamic authorities and the hierarchy of the Coptic Orthodox Church. On one hand, he criticized the increasing Islamization of Egyptian civil society. On the other, he lamented the political involvement of the Coptic Orthodox Church. In one post, Nazeer wrote that a gathering of activists at a Coptic church was inappropriate because churches were meant to be venues for prayer, not for politics.

According to Eid, Nazeer was arrested with the complicity of leaders in the Coptic Orthodox Church. In October of 2008, police detained Nazeer’s relatives at a police station and threatened to hold them until he came out of hiding. Nazeer turned himself into the police station on the advice of Bishop Kirollos of Nag Hammadi, Nazeer reported to his attorneys. Kirollos assured Nazeer he would be detained no more than four days and then be released.

Kirollos had denounced Nazeer to security, Nazeer told his attorneys.

All attempts to reach Kirollos about his alleged involvement in Nazeer’s arrest were unsuccessful. Several attempts to reach Bishop Anba Yoannes, authorized to speak about the case on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s Pope Shenouda III, were also unsuccessful. Egypt’s SSI, a political police force run by the Interior minister, routinely declines to comment on cases.

This week’s application will be sent to a court within the Ministry of the Interior. But under the emergency law, police officials have the power to ignore court orders. When local police execute a court order to release prisoners held under Egypt’s emergency law, security police commonly re-arrest them minutes later.

The law, enacted after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, allows authorities to hold people without charge. Eid estimated that there are approximately 14,000 people imprisoned under this law. In 2005, while running for re-election, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised to replace the contested law. But in May of 2008, the Egyptian government extended the law for two more years.

Mamdouh Nakhla, an attorney and civil rights activist in Egypt, said oppression of Coptic Christians is common and that many police officers in Egypt are the “agents of persecution.” At best, he said, they are complicit in acts of persecution. At worst, he added, police collude with others hostile to Christianity.

“They give green lights to Islamists, and protect them, and give them the feeling that they are immune from prosecution,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News

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Coptic Blogger in Egypt Pressured to Convert in Prison


Christian critical of Islamization of society, Orthodox church jailed without charges.

ISTANBUL, October 31 (CDN) — A Coptic Christian blogger in Egypt entering his second year of prison without charge is being pressured to convert to Islam in exchange for his freedom, his attorneys said.

On Oct. 3, 2008, Hani Nazeer, a 28-year-old high school social worker from Qena, Egypt and author of the blog “Karz El Hob” (“Love Cherries”), was arrested by Egypt’s State Security Investigations (SSI) and sent to Burj Al-Arab prison. Although police never charged him with any crime, Nazeer has been detained for more than a year under Egypt’s administrative imprisonment law.

Gamel Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the group representing Nazeer, said Nazeer was arrested unfairly and now is being coerced to abandon his faith.

“Hani complains about that, it happened, and it’s true,” said Eid. “But the police do it in a subtle way. They do it by inspiring the inmates to suggest to Nazeer that if he converts to Islam, police will work to get him out of prison.”

Nazeer is confined in what is commonly known as the “general population” area of the prison, meaning he is housed with both violent and non-violent felons. Nazeer told his attorneys he is often treated harshly. Despite this, Eid said Nazeer is constant in his faith.

A few days before his arrest, on Oct. 1, 2008, a group of young Muslims in Nag Hammadi saw his website and clicked on a link to an online copy of “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,” a novel written under the pseudonym “Father Utah.” The book is a response to “Azazil,” a novel critical of Christianity by Yusuf Zidane that is famous in Egypt.

While Zidane’s critique of Christianity garnered him awards throughout the Arab world, locals protested the link to Utah’s site.

Insulting religion is considered a crime in Egypt, although typically the law is only enforced when Islam is criticized. Police have not publicly produced any evidence linking Nazeer to Utah’s work. After Nazeer was arrested, posts continued on Utah’s website. It is unclear if the teenagers who saw Nazeer’s website and were offended were students at his school.

Eid said the deeper issue was that Nazeer upset Islamic authorities by criticizing the increasing Islamization of Egyptian civil society and irked church leaders by lamenting political involvement of the Coptic Orthodox Church. In one post, Nazeer wrote said that a gathering of activists at a Coptic church was inappropriate because churches were meant to be venues for prayer, not for politics.

Police had detained Nazeer’s relatives at a police station and threatened to hold them until he came out of hiding, Eid said, and Nazeer turned himself into a police station in October 2008 – on the advice of Bishop Kirollos of Nag Hammadi, Nazeer reported to his attorneys.

Kirollos assured Nazeer he would be detained no more than four days and then be released. According to Nazeer and the ANHRI, the bishop colluded with authorities to get rid of Nazeer, whose online criticism had become bothersome.

“[Kirollos] is the one who turned me in after he denounced me to security,” Nazeer told his attorneys. “He bluffed [that] we were going for a short investigation and it will be all over. Then I found out it was a charade to turn me in to state security.”

Eid claimed the arrest achieved two complementary goals for police and Kirollos – calming those protesting “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,” and silencing a blogger who had been critical of Islamic hardliners and the Coptic Orthodox Church.

All attempts to reach Kirollos were unsuccessful. Several attempts to reach Bishop Anba Yoannes, authorized to speak about the case on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s Pope Shenouda III, were also unsuccessful. Egypt’s SSI, a political police force run by the Interior minister, routinely declines to comment on cases.

Release Orders Invalidated

Nazeer’s attorneys are set to appeal his imprisonment on Sunday (Nov. 1), but it is unclear how or even if the appeal will affect his case. Courts have ordered Nazeer’s release several times before. The SSI has rendered the orders for release invalid by invoking the country’s longstanding emergency law, which supersedes court authority.

When local police execute a court order to release prisoners held under the emergency law, security police commonly re-arrest them minutes later. The law, enacted after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, allows authorities to hold people without charge. Eid estimated that there are approximately 14,000 people imprisoned under this law.

Eid said Nazeer’s case is extremely difficult.

“Hani is in between the hate of the Islamists and the hate of the Christians,” he said. “The Islamists of course are against him, and the church [leadership] is against him, so he’s being badly squeezed between the two.”

Kalldas Fakhry Girgis, Nazeer’s cousin, saw him 15 days ago. Girgis said that despite Nazeer’s confinement, he is in good spirits. He remains strong in his faith and his convictions.

“He wants to know why he’s been arrested,” Girgis said about his cousin. “He’s hopeful. His morale is high. But he is feeling stressed.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

INDIA: ANTI-CHRISTIAN VIOLENCE UP IN PRE-ELECTION MADHYA PRADESH


BJP begins to play ‘Hindutva’ card as it fights for survival in the state it rules.

NEW DELHI, July 29 (Compass Direct News) – As elections approach in Madhya Pradesh state, Christian leaders say their community is increasingly targeted as part of an effort by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to consolidate Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) votes.

“This year alone, since January we have recorded 35 major incidents of atrocities against the Christian community,” Father Anand Muttungal, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh, told Compass. “When we talk of major incidents, we do not count minor incidents like cases of harassment, beatings, attacks on church halls and filing false cases against Christian workers.”

Fr. Anand Muttungal added that “quite alarming” major incidents of violence have numbered more than 150 since the BJP came to power in the state in 2003.

With elections scheduled for December, the Hindu extremist BJP already has begun saber-rattling against the Christian community, drawing sharp reactions from church leaders.

On June 22, Fr. Anand Muttungal sent a legal notice to the state president of the youth wing of the BJP, Vishwas Sarang, asking him to apologize for “irresponsible comments” that missionaries were engaging in large-scale conversion activities in Madhya Pradesh. Sarang’s comments triggered threats and demonstrations against area Christians.

Sarang reportedly had issued the comments at a press conference in Indore, a commercial hub close to Bhopal, the state capital. There Archbishop Leo Cornelio reportedly said the comments could “tarnish the good image of the church.”

Indira Iyengar, a former member of the Madhya Pradesh State Minority Commission, agreed that atrocities against Christians have escalated since the BJP came into power in the state in December 2003.

“As elections draw closer,” she told Compass, “the BJP, which is used to segregating masses on religious lines and attacking minorities, even physically, will do so even more and would like to show Hindus that they are the only saviors of Hinduism, and that if they do not protect the Hindus, they will all become Christians or Muslims.”

Iyengar expressed her fear in doleful terms. “If the BJP wins the coming election, there is no hope for the minority communities.”

 

Discouraged but Not Defeated

Such discouragement is understandable. On June 15, around 25 people shouting Hindu chants entered the Believers Church in Rewa district, dragging out and beating pastor Rampal Masih.

The attackers were accompanied by the police, who watched as the pastor was beaten, and then warned him against leading further worship in the village. Officers threatened to arrest him if he did so again.

On July 3, police forcibly entered the premises of David Vinayagam, a Christian social worker who has run a children’s home in Katni district since 2006, questioning him and searching the facility without search warrant. They arrested Vinayagam, leaving his family and the young ones from the children’s home in chaos.

Police charged Vinayagam with forced conversion and also detained and beat his colleagues without charging them. Media have portrayed Vinayagam and his organization in bad light, though local residents say the children’s home serves the area well.

Subsequently, police forcibly transferred all 26 children from the home to a government-run children’s home with a capacity for only eight to 10 residents. Unfed and badly treated, the children received visits and “counsel” from Hindu extremists from the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) urging them to testify against Vinayagam.

Separately, on June 28 police accompanied by RSS and BJP workers disrupted a worship service, manhandling and arresting pastor Hatey Singh Rawat. He was charged with hurting religious sentiments of Hindus. Police used sticks to beat members of the congregation who tried to protest the arrest of the pastor.

On May 15, intolerant Hindus armed with hockey sticks, bats and stones attacked the Novitiate of the Presentation Sisters at Bhopal. They beat two novices and destroyed property, causing a damage of US$2,333.

 

Election Strategy

Fr. Anand Muttungal said these incidents “are a technique to polarize the votes. They [BJP and affiliates] want to threaten the Hindu community that Christians are going ahead of them.”

When Christians file First Information Reports over the atrocities against them, police usually do not arrest the BJP and RSS workers, and when they do, they usually file no formal charges against them, he said.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, told Compass that victimization of all marginalized communities has increased this year.

“The BJP thinks that by doing this they can consolidate the Hindu votes, which is not true,” he said. “Time and again the past has proved this.”

Another reason the BJP is compelled to “play the Hindutva card,” sources said, is the significant threat that Bharatiya Janashakti Party chief Uma Bharati poses. She had led the BJP to a 75 percent majority government in 2003 and was its first Chief Minister, but on July 18 Bharati, who has almost a fanatic fan following, ruled out returning to the BJP.

While general elections aren’t due until 2009, many BJP-ruled states will hold elections later this year, with the BJP concentrating especially on Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan states.

 

History of Intolerance

Madhya Pradesh has a Christian population of 170,381, only 0.3 percent of the total in the state, according to the 2001 census. The state’s history of religious intolerance runs deep, with an “anti-conversion” law passed in 1968 that has served as a pretext for harassing Christians.

Anti-Christian violence rocked Jhabua district after the body of a 9-year-old girl called Sujata was found in one of the Christian schools in the district on January 11, 2004. Although a non-Christian confessed to the crime, Hindu extremists used the event to justify various attacks against the Christian community.

Abuses became so rampant in 2005 and 2006 that the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) sent a fact-finding team to Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in June 2006. Investigators found that Hindu extremists had frequently invoked the state’s anti-conversion law as a means to incite mobs against Christians and have Christians arrested without evidence.

“The life of Christians has become miserable at the hands of miscreants in connivance with the police,” the NCM said in its report. “There are allegations that when atrocities were committed on Christians, the police remained mere spectators, and in certain cases they did not even register their complaints.”

Report from Compass Direct News