Life on Hold for Egyptian Christian Arrested for his Faith

Unresolved charge of ‘defaming religion’ leaves him in perpetual limbo.

CAIRO, Egypt, December 16 (CDN) — An Egyptian who left Islam to become a Christian and consequently lost his wife, children and business is waiting to see if the government will now take away his freedom for “defaming” Islam.

Ashraf Thabet, 45, is charged with defaming a revealed religion, Article 98f of the Egyptian Penal Code. The charges stem from Thabet’s six-year search for spiritual meaning that eventually led him to become a Christian. During his search, he shared his doubts about Islam and told others what he was learning about Jesus Christ.

Local religious authorities, incensed at Thabet’s ideas, notified Egypt’s State Security Intelligence service (SSI), which arrested and charged him with defamation. If found guilty, Thabet would face up to five years in jail. But because prosecutors have made no move to try the case, Thabet lives in limbo and is subject to a regular barrage of death threats from people in his community in Port Said in northeast Egypt.

“I don’t know what is going to happen in the future,” Thabet said. “They’re making life hard for me. I can’t get back my computer. I can’t get back anything.”



Thabet said that before his search began he was a committed Muslim who did his best to observe its rules, including those for prayer and fasting.

“I wasn’t an extremist, but I was committed to praying and to reading the Quran,” Thabet said. “I went to the Hajj. I did the usual things. I followed the Quran for the most part.”

Despite his efforts, Thabet admitted that his understanding of God was based on fear and routine, nearly rote obedience.

“There was no spiritual relationship between myself and God,” he said. “In general I was always cautious about my relationship with God. I didn’t want to do anything wrong.”

Thabet started looking at Christian Web sites, but his real interest in Christianity began when he watched the film, “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.

“When I watched ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ I was very touched by Jesus’ story, and I wanted to read more about Him,” Thabet said. “So I asked a friend how I could know more about Jesus, and he told me, ‘The Bible.’”

His friend, a Christian Copt, did not get him a Bible until a month later because, Thabet thinks, he was afraid of being accused of proselytizing. Thabet began reading the Bible, which had a powerful impact on him, especially the Sermon on the Mount.

“I felt inside myself that these were the words of God,” he said. “The Bible tells people to give and to give out freely, so these words couldn’t be the words of a human being or a [mere] person, because human beings are inherently selfish.”

Thabet was also struck by the lives that the early followers of Jesus led, especially their willingness to lose everything, including their lives, for Christ.

The final factor that led Thabet to become a Christian came from Islam’s “Ninety-Nine Names of Allah,” attributes of God according to the Quran and tradition. In the names, God is called a “healer” a “resurrecter” and “just.”

“I started to compare all these characteristics with the characteristics of Jesus, and I saw that Jesus had a lot of the characteristics that God had, not only the human characteristics, being just and being kind, but there were similarities in the supernatural characteristics, like that He raised people from the dead,” he said. “In the Quran only God could raise people from the dead. I noticed that Jesus could raise people from the dead, and that He could heal people. Once I started to notice
the similarities between God and Jesus, I started believing that Jesus is the Son of God.”

Thabet said he cared about others “going the right way,” so he started having conversations with Muslim friends.

At first, people respected Thabet or tolerated what was seen as an awkward curiosity. But after he told his friends they were “only Muslim by inheritance,” they started to turn against him. They asked him what he was going to be if he wasn’t going to be a Muslim.

“I told them I started to read about Christianity, and I was starting to believe in it, and that’s when they brought the elders to talk to me,” he said.

The meeting didn’t go well. The Islamic leaders were unable to answer his questions and ended up yelling at him. Then they reported him to the SSI.



The SSI summoned Thabet and questioned him on his doubts about Islam.

Thabet said by the time he was done with the interrogation, the SSI officer looked almost sick and told him not to talk to anyone else in Port Said about religion.

“I don’t encourage you to talk about these things with people or to open up these types of discussions, because it will just provoke people and make them angry,” the officer told him, according to Thabet.

Two days later, Thabet said, the SSI ordered him to report for more questioning, this time with an officer who specialized in religious issues and countering missionaries. The officer wanted to know what made him start to doubt Islam. He asked specific questions about what Web sites he had been on and what books he had read, and whether he had been baptized.

Thabet said that at the time of his questioning, he was still struggling with his new beliefs. Part of him wanted something that would restore his faith in Islam, so he went to Internet chat rooms for religious discussion.

“A part of me wanted to feel that I was wrong, that there was an answer to my questions,” he said. “I was looking for someone who would say ‘No, no, this is how it is,’ and that I would regain my trust back or not have any more doubts. But none of the people I talked to could answer me. They didn’t say anything to any effect.”

Thabet said he was always respectful, but Muslims found his questions provocative and became increasingly angry.

Eventually police came for Thabet. On March 22 at 3 a.m., he said, 11 officers from the SSI cut the power to his home, kicked down his front door and assaulted him in front of his crying wife and children.

Thabet quickly pulled away from the fight, once he realized they were officers from the SSI. The men swarmed over Thabet’s home, seizing his computer and every book and CD he owned. They took him to jail.

Authorities interrogated Thabet non-stop for 12 hours, took a break and then interrogated him for seven more, he said.

Initially he was held for 15 days. Then authorities ordered he be held for another 15 days. Then they extended it again. Thabet said he spent the entire time in solitary confinement, and he wasn’t informed of the “defamation of religion” charge against him until the end of 132 days in jail. He said he was not tortured, however, and that his interrogators and jailers were largely civil.

There was more hardship waiting for him at home. Muslim leaders in his neighborhood convinced his wife to divorce him and take his 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.

“They gave her the money to file for a divorce, a car and another person to marry,” Thabet said, adding that the Muslim leaders had offered him money too if he would stay in Islam. “In the beginning they tried to bribe me to come back to Islam, but I refused.”

Thabet has only had a few brief moments with his children since he was arrested, mainly when his soon-to-be ex-wife came to their home to gather a few belongings. If she goes through with the divorce, according to Egyptian law it is likely Thabet will lose all parental rights to his children, including any right to see them.

In Egypt and most other Muslim-majority countries, leaving Islam is considered ample grounds for termination of parental rights. Thabet said the religious leaders consider him “lost to Islam” and are trying to “save” his wife and children.

He filed a report with police about the Muslim leaders bribing his wife – and about another man who swindled money from him – but police ignored both reports, he said.

Kamal Fahmi of Set My People Free to Worship Me, a group headquartered in Cairo dedicated to raising awareness about the problems faced by Muslims who become Christians, said that under Islam, “Muslim converts don’t have the right to exist.”

Arrests like Thabet’s are common in Egypt.

“It is a tactic used to intimidate people and scare them from leaving Islam and taking alternative beliefs or moral codes,” Fahmi said.

In Islam as it is most often practiced in Egypt, merely expressing doubt about Islam is considered wrong, Fahmi said. Questioning any of its claims is considered blasphemy and is punishable by imprisonment under a variety of charges in Egypt; it is punishable by death in some other countries.

“Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Muhammad,’ is considered defaming Islam,” Fahmi said. “Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Islam as it is not true,’ can lead to death [murder], as you are considered an apostate,” Fahmi said. “Even rejecting the Islamic moral codes can lead to the same thing. Criticizing any of the sharia [Islamic law] is considered blasphemy.”


The Future

Thabet said he is uncertain what the future holds. He was released on Aug. 1 but, because he has the defamation of religion charge over his head – with no indication of when the case could go to court – he is unable to work and cannot even obtain a driver’s license.

His savings are almost depleted, forcing him to borrow money from a Muslim friend. He is concerned about re-arrest and receives death threats on a regular basis. He is too afraid to leave his apartment on most days.

“There are a lot of phone threats,” Thabet said. Noting he had been baptized three years ago, he said he has received phone threats in which someone tells him, “We are going to baptize you again with blood.”

On numerous occasions while talking in Internet chat rooms, he has been told, “Look outside the window, we know where you are,” Thabet said.

In recent days Muslims are angry at converts and at Christians in general, he said. “They’re very worked up about religious issues.”

He said he wants to leave Egypt but admits that, at his age, it would be very hard to start over. And if he stays in Egypt, he said, at least he will have a chance to see his children, however brief those encounters may be.

Since Thabet was released from jail on Aug. 1, authorities have seized his passport and summoned him four times for questioning. He said he thinks the SSI is trying to wear him down.

“Everyone is telling me that they [the government] want to make my life hard,” he said. “The problem here in Egypt is the religious intolerance that is found in government ministries. The intolerance has reached a point where they can’t think straight. Their intolerance makes them unaware of their own intolerance.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Three more believers die in military confinement centers in past four months.

LOS ANGELES, January 21 (Compass Direct News) – Three Christians incarcerated in military prisons for their faith have died in the past four months in Eritrea, including the death on Friday (Jan. 16) of a 42-year-old man in solitary confinement, according to a Christian support organization.

Sources told Open Doors that Mehari Gebreneguse Asgedom died at the Mitire Military Confinement center from torture and complications from diabetes. Asgedom was a member of the Church of the Living God in Mendefera.

His death followed the revelation this month of another death in the same prison. Mogos Hagos Kiflom, 37, was said to have died as a result of torture he endured for refusing to recant his faith, according to Open Doors, but the exact date of his death was unknown. A member of Rhema Church, Kiflom is survived by his wife, child and mother.

Incarcerated Christians from throughout Eritrea have been transferred to the Mitire prison in the country’s northeast. In 2002 the Eritrean regime outlawed religious activity except that of the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim religions.

In October Open Doors learned of the death of Teklesenbet Gebreab Kiflom, 36, who died while imprisoned for his faith at the Wi’a Military Confinement center. He was reported to have died after prison commanders refused to give him medical attention for malaria.

In June 2008, 37-year-old Azib Simon died from untreated malaria as well. Weakened by torture, sources told Compass, Simon contracted malaria only a week before she died.

Together with the deaths this month, the confirmed number of Christians who have died while imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea now totals eight.


Mass Arrests

At the same time, the government of President Isaias Afwerki has stepped up its campaign against churches it has outlawed, earning it a spot on the U.S. Department of State’s list of worst violators of religious freedom.

The government arrested 15 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in Keren on Jan. 11, and before Christmas at least 49 leaders of unregistered churches in Asmara were rounded up over two weeks, Open Doors reported. Last November, 34 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in Dekemhare were arrested.

Those arrested included members of the Church of the Living God, Medhaniel Alem Revival Group and the Philadelphia, Kale-Hiwot, Rhema, Full Gospel and Salvation by Christ churches, according to Open Doors. The church leaders’ names appeared on a government list of 180 people who were taken from their homes and work places.

In the November sweep, authorities arrested 65 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in the towns of Barentu and Dekemhare, including 17 women. In Keren and Mendefera, 25 members of the Full Gospel Church were arrested, and 20 Christians belonging to the Church of the Living God in Mendefera and Adi-Kuala were arrested.

Church leaders in Eritrea told Open Doors that by mid-December, a total of 2,891 Christians, including 101 women, had been incarcerated for their faith.

On June 8, 2008 Compass learned that eight Christians held at the Adi-Quala prison were taken to medical emergency facilities as a result of torture by military personnel at the camp. Eritrean officials have routinely denied religious oppression exists in the country, saying the government is only enforcing laws against unregistered churches.

The government has denied all efforts by independent Protestant churches to register, and people caught worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even in private homes, suffer arrest, torture and severe pressure to deny their faith. The Eritrean Orthodox Church and its flourishing renewal movement has also been subject to government raids.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Suspects haven’t been charged; politicians shielding them from prosecution.

ISTANBUL, September 4 (Compass Direct News) – Four Pakistani Muslims killed an elderly woman with an axe over a dispute with her husband, who has been unable to prosecute them due to his low social status as a Christian.

Case workers said the alleged culprits targeted the couple for theft and later murder because they believed Pakistan’s legal system would not prosecute them for murdering Christians. The suspects’ connections to mafia and national politicians further emboldened them, they said.

“The Muslims assume the Christians are sheep and don’t have any weight,” said Sohail Johnson, case worker and chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan (SLMP), a Non-Governmental Organization that supports Christian prisoners throughout the Punjab province. “The culprits thought, ‘[The Christians] have no voice. Nothing will happen if we do something,’” he said.

Noban Bibi, 65, was killed on July 2 in Pakistan’s eastern Kasur province in the village of Khraper.

The dispute that led to her murder started in January, when two men stole money and gold items from the couple.

According to a First Instance Report, Yaqoob Shareef and Hadayat Ali broke into the house of Dara Masih, 85, while his wife was away in Lahore. They stole gold ornaments and 15,000 Pakistan rupees (US$200).

Masih demanded they return the stolen goods or he would prosecute them. The alleged culprits then began threatening to kill him.

On July 2 at 2:30 a.m. Shareef, Ali, and two unknown persons entered their house and killed Bibi with a pickaxe.

An autopsy obtained by Compass said Bibi had multiple lacerations on her head, some nearly four inches long.

Johnson of SLMP said the alleged culprits believed they wouldn’t be prosecuted due to their connections to politicians and mafia.

Shareef, 36, and Ali, in his late 20s, are members of a criminal organization and have connections with local and national politicians that they are using to leverage the criminal justice system, said Shazhad Kamran, an SLMP case worker.

“In Pakistan, politicians always need criminals to assert their power in an area,” Kamran said. “They always depend on criminals, and criminals depend on politicians to save them.”


Bribery and ‘Dissimulation’

Masih nevertheless registered the murder with the local police. He could not convince local police officer Muhammad Akram to arrest Shareef and Ali, according to an SLMP report, because Akram received a bribe requiring him to threaten Masih to drop charges against them.

Masih then took the case to a district police officer in Kasur, who arrested Ali and Sharif. The two suspects, however, have not been formally prosecuted.

When the SLMP’s Johnson and Kamran approached Sub-Inspector Aslam Pistooly and Investigation Officer Malik Mansab Ali on Aug. 2, Pistooly claimed the two suspects were not guilty. To prove this, he said the accused would swear an oath of innocence in front of prominent Muslims at a mosque, the report said.

Johnson and Kamran refused the offer for the suspects to do so, stating that swearing an oath at a mosque is not a part of Pakistani criminal investigation proceedings.

Pistooly then became angry and told Johnson and Kamran, “If you are not satisfied that Muslims will go into the mosque and swear they are innocent, then if you can go into the church, put your hand on the Bible, and swear they are guilty, then I will make legal action against him,” according to Johnson.

Speaking by telephone from Kasum, Investigation Officer Ali, who was at the Aug. 2 meeting, said swearing an oath in a mosque as proof of innocence is illegal under Pakistani criminal law. Asked if Pistooly had asked the culprits to testify in a mosque, he told Compass he could not confirm it.

“I have not compelled any person to swear an oath in a mosque, and Pakistani law does not permit it,” he said through a translator.

The SLMP case workers said the Muslim suspects wanted to swear an oath at the mosque to take advantage of an Islamic tradition that allows accused men to give false testimony when under threat.

Known as Al Taqiyya (dissimulation), this concept allows Muslims to conceal the truth at a time of danger to save themselves from physical or mental injury. In some traditions, Al Taqiyya can only be used when one is wrongfully accused.

On Aug. 4 Punjab Minister for Human Rights and Minority Affairs Kamran Michael transferred the case from the district police office to the Karsur superintendent of police.

The SLMP case workers met with Kasur Superintendent of Police Rana Shahid Ahmed on Aug. 18. In their first meeting he was uncooperative and pressured Masih to drop all charges against the two suspects, the report said.

Johnson said he believes justice will not come easily for Masih because the case has become an issue of pride for local Muslims. Members of Parliament are supporting the alleged criminals and putting pressure on police to find them innocent, he said, “just to save the skin of Muslims.”

The SLMP is now trying to move the investigation to the Criminal Investigation Agency. It will first file a complaint in a lower criminal court against the alleged culprits and police for not registering the case.

Kasur is an agricultural city located in the Punjab province with a long Islamic history. The area contains radical conservative Muslim elements, such as members of Jamaat-Ud-Dawa, a Pakistani charity that the U.S. State Department designated a terrorist organization in 2006.

In recent years Christians in Kasur have faced charges of blasphemy against Islam, torture and forced conversion.

In July 2007 Catholic prisoner Dil Awaiz was tortured, barred from teaching Bible classes to fellow Christian prisoners and placed in solitary confinement. He was released in April this year.

Human Rights and Minority Affairs Minister Michael spoke to Christians in Kanganpur, 50 kilometers (31 miles) southeast of Kasur, on Friday (Aug. 29). He said the government was taking every step to protect minority rights, according to the Associated Press of Pakistan.  

Report from Compass Direct News