After painful effort to change ID card, Christians flee – to similar fate.
CAIRO, Egypt, March 21 (CDN) — When the plane carrying Maher El-Gohary and his daughter, Dina Mo’otahssem, took off from Cairo International Airport last month, they both wept with joy. After spending two-and-a-half years in hiding for leaving Islam to become Christians, they were elated by their newfound freedom.
They also felt secure that once they arrived in Syria, they would quickly obtain visas to the United States and start a new life. That hope soon proved unfounded.
After spending more than a week and a half unable to obtain a visa to the United States or to any country in Europe, they realized they may have traded in the reality of being prisoners in their own country for being refugees in another. And as El-Gohary watches the weeks pass and his resources dwindle, he said the stress is almost unbearable.
“I feel like we’ve stepped out of a prison cell and into a fire,” he said. “We are in very, very bad conditions … My daughter and I divide the bottles of water to live, because there is no income.”
Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, 58, gained notoriety in Egypt after he sued the government in August 2008 to gain the right to change the religion listed on his state-issued ID card from Islam to Christianity. In Egypt, ID cards play a critical role in a person’s life, being used for everything from opening a bank account and renting an apartment to receiving medical care.
The listed religious affiliation, whether a card-holder subscribes to it or not, also determines whether the person is subject to Islamic civil law. The listed religious designation determines what state-mandated religion classes minors are required to take in school. El-Gohary said he filed the suit so his daughter, then 15, could opt out of the religious classes and would not be subject to the persecution he suffered when he became a Christian in his 20s.
It is a crime punishable by imprisonment to have no ID card in Egypt.
The suit sparked outrage throughout Egypt. Both El-Gohary and his daughter were publicly branded apostates in a country where 84 percent of Muslims think those who leave Islam should be executed, according to a study released by the Pew Research Center in December. The same month the suit was filed in 2008, El-Gohary and his daughter were forced into hiding.
For two-and-a-half years, El-Gohary shifted back and forth among several apartments in Cairo and Alexandria, usually once every month. Even in hiding, the two were harassed regularly by Egypt’s dreaded State Security Intelligence service (SSI) and assaulted repeatedly by others, including someone pouring acid on Dina, El-Gohary said.
While in hiding, El-Gohary tried repeatedly to leave Egypt, but officials at the Ministry of the Interior blocked him at every attempt. On at least one occasion, they seized his passport. In December 2010, after a long legal battle, El-Gohary got a court decision ordering the Ministry of the Interior to allow him to travel, but he said it still took several weeks for the government to comply with the order; the Jan. 25-Feb. 11 revolution didn’t hurt, El-Gohary said.
Out of Egypt
After the national demonstrations that led to the removal of both President Hosni Mubarak and Minister of Interior Habib Al-Adly, El-Gohary and his daughter went to Cairo International Airport on Feb. 22 to leave the county. They came prepared with their newly issued passports, the court order and myriad documents to prove they had the right to leave the country. Even so, authorities took the two aside for interrogation at the airport.
“My daughter and I went to the counter of the airport to the manager, then they took us to the SSI,” El-Gohary said. “We spent an hour talking to an officer trying to tell him, ‘We spent ages during Habib Al-Adly’s time, and even now after the revolution, we don’t have the right to leave?’”
According to El-Gohary, the guard asked him if he really wanted to leave the country.
“Yes,” El-Gohary replied. “I have a court order against Al-Adly, and I have the right to leave and the freedom to travel outside the country.” As if to add insult to more than two years of injury, the SSI officers told El-Gohary that Egypt was “their country” and to “come back anytime you want to.”
El-Gohary credits the revolution as the reason he was allowed to leave Egypt, saying it was a miracle “from God.”
They chose to go to Syria because Egyptian citizens are not required to have visas to visit there. After contact with a U.S. organization that concentrates on religious freedom, El-Gohary expected it would be easy to get a visa to the United States, where his wife lives. But he said he has been unable to obtain an entry visa there or to any country where he will feel safe. He went to a U.N. office in Syria seeking assistance; he was given an appointment to come back on April 20.
“I wasn’t expecting, after all this suffering and all these years, that…” El-Gohary said, cutting himself off. “The series of persecution is not finished.”
Although they don’t live under the same type of threats as they did in Egypt, El-Gohary and Dina now live in an apartment where they still watch everything they say and everyone with whom they talk. They still spend much of their time trapped between the four walls of their apartment because Syria, El-Gohary said, is a country where converts to Christianity from Islam are persecuted.
“The danger is still there,” El-Gohary said. “We don’t get out of the house. We don’t meet people. We don’t tell people what we are doing or talk to them about our situation. Because we don’t want someone to say, ‘Why are you applying to the U.N.?’ There are still a lot of enemies.”
Dina, now 17, said that although leaving Egypt was “like a miracle,” she is devastated by the prospect of having to spend more time with her life on hold. She said she is just as scared in Syria as she was in Egypt.
“We’re really, really tired of all this suffering,” she said. “I’ve lost two years of my life. I want to finish school.”
Muslim converts to Christianity in Syria were sometimes forced to leave their place of residence due to societal pressure last year, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report. While there is no official state religion in Syria, the constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic law is a principal source of legislation.
With strict monitoring and curtailing of militant Islam, the government in Syria has long been considered a moderate regime. The government’s fear of violent responses by Islamic extremists to increasing conversions to Christianity, however, was at least partially responsible for the closing of six buildings where Christians were meeting last year, according to Christian support organization Open Doors. Noting that several Christians were arrested and interrogated in 2010, the organization’s World Watch List bumped Syria’s ranking up to 38th place among nations in which persecution of Christians takes place, from position 41 the previous year.
Syria is 90 percent Muslim, and 6.34 percent of its 22.5 million population is Christian, according to Operation World.
Though El-Gohary and his daughter have a dark outlook on their current situation, they are still grateful.
“Without God’s love, we would have been dead by now,” El-Gohary said. “Getting out of Egypt itself was a victory from God.”
Dina said she also is thankful, but that as she gets older she is becoming increasingly preoccupied by one wish.
“I want to get out so I can finish my studies,” she said. “I want to go into a church and out of a church without being scared of being killed.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.
NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.
The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.
Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.
Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.
“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.
The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.
The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.
According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.
All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.
Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.
Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”
The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.
Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)
The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.
Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.
In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.
Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.
After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.
After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.
Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.
“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.
After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.
A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.
Report from Compass Direct News
Iranian authorities clashed with opposition supporters Thursday as thousands rallied in Tehran to mark the 31st anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic. Arrests and tear gas marred the celebration, reports MNN.
Evangelist Sammy Tippit broadcasts television programming into Iran via satellite, and he says what’s happening is ironic. "There was a revolution that took place that brought the people back to Islam and made this an Islamic republic. As a result of that, the people have now seen Islam for what it is, and they are rejecting that."
One Iranian leader says the most effective evangelist in Iran is the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. "When he came in, it exposed what real Islam is all about." Iranians have lived under the oppression he imposed and are rejecting it.
Tippit says Iranians are looking for freedom. "The greatest freedom in the world is in Christ, so that’s why so many people are turning to Christ," says Tippit.
He adds, "Christians have had a wonderful opportunity during this time [to share the Gospel], but it’s also been a very difficult time for them." He continues, "The government has used the Christians as kind of a ‘whipping boy’. They say, ‘Okay, we have to take this out on someone,’ so they’ve really cracked down on Christians."
Tippit, who is considered an enemy of the state, says there is a huge need right now. The "many people coming to Christ [need training] to help build up the church during this time of great stress that’s going on."
That training is done outside Iran. Tippit says, "We have our Web site that’s in the Farsi language. And, we have our conference in what I call ‘safe places’ where we bring leaders from outside the country and inside the country to train them and help them to grow in Christ."
Report from the Christian Telegraph