Local officials prevent events featuring U.S. evangelist Luis Palau.
HANOI, Vietnam, April 18 (CDN) — Authorities in Vietnam prevented much-anticipated public Easter celebrations in Hanoi planned for Friday and Saturday (April 15-16) after giving a verbal promise to organizers that the events would proceed.
An interchurch organizing committee had submitted a request for permission well in advance and had made elaborate preparations for the special events featuring renowned evangelist Luis Palau.
The organizers said they were disappointed but not entirely surprised by the Communist government’s action.
“The authorities have clearly demonstrated to the world what we experience regularly – that their promises, whether verbal or written, cannot be trusted,” said one church leader who requested anonymity.
Asked to speculate on the reasons for the government’s ultimate refusal, another key church leader said, “I don’t know why, but it almost seems as if the government is deliberately damaging its own reputation.”
Shortly after 1 p.m. on Friday (April 15), after long negotiations, authorities gave verbal assent for the events to proceed, promising the required written permission would be issued imminently. The government-approved venue was the Dien Kinh My Dinh Sports Complex, a state-of-the-art indoor track and field stadium in Hanoi’s Tu Liem district. It reportedly holds 3,100 people; organizers had requested a place with considerably larger capacity.
After receiving the verbal promise, organizers said they went directly to the sports complex hoping to begin preparing the sound and lighting systems. They were not given access.
When no written permission was forthcoming by the scheduled start at 7 p.m., organizers said they were forced to turn away many hundreds of people arriving from the provinces by chartered buses. They urged the people to return home quietly and to pray for the event scheduled for the next evening, they said.
Very late Friday evening, the organizing committee received written permission from the Hanoi People’s Committee to hold what was to have been the second night of the event on Saturday (April 16). They immediately posted the document on Vietnam’s most popular Christian website http://www.hoithanh.com, they said.
Apparently, however, public security and city authorities quietly overrode the reluctant permission granted by Vietnam’s religion bureaucracy. Organizers told Compass that even with the official letter from the People’s Committee, several hurdles had remained. They had still needed to secure a contract from the sports complex on Saturday morning for use of the facilities, and they had yet to request the Committee for Religious Affairs for permission for Palau to speak.
Early on Saturday, Pastor Nguyen Huu Mac, president of the registered Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North), or ECVN(N), who had signed the request, went with colleagues from unregistered house churches to the sports complex to pursue the contract. When they were told that Saturday was not a work day, they went to the Tu Liem district office.
There they were stalled for several more hours by fruitless discussion. District officials eventually told them that although the sports complex was in their area of the city, it was owned and managed by another entity over which they had no control.
Finally, at 1 p.m., the manager of the sports complex arrived. He proceeded to give the organizing committee what Christian leaders described as unreasonable conditions for a contract. For instance, the manager said they could not enter the complex to prepare until 4:30 p.m. – hardly enough time for the scheduled 7 p.m. start. Organizers said he further told them that the sports complex would retain control over who and how many entered the building; he said they would not honor the tickets/invitations that had been widely distributed by the event organizers but would distribute their own and count every head.
The organizers sensed trouble.
Faced with such government duplicity and control over their event and without enough time to set up properly, church leaders said, they unanimously decided they could not proceed with integrity. Shortly after 4 p.m., they issued an indefinite postponement notice.
Reached by Compass late Saturday Hanoi time, a Luis Palau Association spokesman reported that the evangelist had just spent significant time encouraging the tired organizers. Palau told them that the Lord would bless them for their diligence and predicted that they would soon reap a great spiritual harvest. In a few years, he said, they would look on the disappointments of this weekend as insignificant, according to the spokesman.
Despite their disappointment, church leaders took note of gains: The effort to stage the events, they said, marked unprecedented cooperation among various groups, with the ECVN(N), the only registered church based in the north, applying for the permission document on behalf of all groups. Cooperating in the organizing were northern house churches belonging to the Hanoi Christian Fellowship and southern-based house churches belonging to the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship, as well as some smaller groups.
Together, the church leaders said, they determined not to bow to government manipulation and pressure.
“Clearly someone at the top disallowed these events and then left it to clumsy underlings to create bureaucratic obstacles,” said a long-time overseas Vietnam analyst. “Most people will see through this ruse and recognize simple lack of religious freedom.”
In Ho Chi Minh City, similar Easter celebrations were given last-minute approval and went ahead the previous weekend with considerable response to Palau’s messages.
It is not known if or how the cancellation of the events in Hanoi will affect plans for the Evangelical Church of Vietnam, both the northern and southern entities, to include Palau in their June centennial celebrations in Danang, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City.
Permission has been long requested, but so far the government has only given general verbal approval.
Report from Compass Direct News
Michoacan state church leader abducted during Sunday service.
MEXICO CITY, April 15 (CDN) — Some 500 worshippers were gathered for last Sunday’s (April 10) worship service at the Christian Center El Shaddai in the Mexican city of Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacan at about 8:15 a.m. when four masked men burst in firing machine guns into the air.
Before the frightened believers realized what was happening, their pastor, Josué Ramírez Santiago, had been whisked away. Divergent press reports indicated the kidnappers, suspected drug traffickers active in the state, were about 10 in number.
The following day, the pastor’s family received news that the criminals wanted a ransom of 20 million pesos (US$1.7 million). Even if the family could raise such an immense sum – considered doubtful – payment would not guarantee that the victim would be returned alive.
Arturo Farela, director of the National Fraternity of Evangelical Churches, has asserted that organized crime syndicates and drug cartels have targeted Christians because they view churches as revenue centers and because churches support programs for the rehabilitation of drug addicts and alcoholics.
“The majority of rehabilitation centers that have been attacked by organized crime in Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana, Tepic and other places belong to the evangelical community,” Farela said in a declaration regarding the kidnapping of Ramirez. “Furthermore, some 100 Mexican or foreign pastors who lived in Ciudad Juarez have had to abandon the city because of the threats and demands for money. And of course many pastors and their families have been victims of extortion, threats, kidnapping and homicide.”
Farela has stated that 100 Mexican clergymen have been kidnapped in recent years, with 15 of them losing their lives to organized crime. Asked if Compass could review his records of these crimes, Farela said he was not authorized to permit it.
In numerous other cases, children of pastors have been kidnapped, including one from Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, who has not been heard from for some six months. The college-age daughter of a prominent pastor in Mexico City was held by kidnappers for a week but was released when the criminals grew tired of the father’s prayers every time they telephoned him; the family has not revealed whether money was given for her return.
Michoacan, the state where the most recent abduction took place, has been a center of much criminal activity and also of severe reprisals by elements of the Mexican army. The state where President Felipe Calderon was born, Michoacan was the first to implement an anti-drug military operation that expanded to northern and eastern states.
In spite of the operation, more than 34,600 people nationwide have reportedly been assassinated since it was implemented in December 2006, with most of those crimes tied to drug traffickers “settling accounts.”
Report from Compass Direct News
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
Congregation accepts offer under condition that government build them permanent building.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 29 (CDN) — A West Java church has agreed to move temporarily to a government-selected site following Islamist harassment that included a Sept. 12 attack on two of its leaders.
The Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) in Ciketing village, Bekasi, decided in a congregational meeting on Sunday (Sept. 26) to accept a government offer to move worship services to the former Organization and Political Party (OPP) building on the condition that local officials will keep a promise to build a new house of worship for them within two years in the Mustika Sari district.
The Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak, who received hospital treatment after she was struck with a wooden plank by suspected Islamic extremists in the Sept. 12 attack, said that the church was ready to stop struggling.
“We are tired of being intimidated and terrorized,” Pastor Simanjuntak said. “We will be able to worship quietly and peacefully.”
Church lawyer Saor Siagian said that the church had accepted the temporary move with the understanding that the Bekasi municipal government must fulfill its pledge. The government will build a new church building to replace the structure the church is leaving on a 2,500-square meter lot belonging to PT Timah, the Government Tin Mining Co. in the Mustika Sari area of Bekasi. The lot is zoned for general and social facilities.
The government had suggested two alternative locations: the PT Timah lot and a 1,900-square meter parcel in the Strada Housing area. The congregation and leaders of HKBP Ciketing chose the PT Timah property.
The first HKBP Ciketing worship service in the former OPP Building took place without incident on Sunday, with the Bekasi government providing buses to transport the congregation to the new site. Pastor Simanjuntak said the congregation is thankful for the new temporary site, but it does not accommodate the entire congregation. The 10-meter by 14-meter building accommodates 250 people, but normally 300 attend services, and some had to stand outside, she said.
Dozens of police guarded the location.
Zaki Oetomo, a Bekasi city official, told Compass that the building could be used rent-free for two years, with an extension possible if the church desired. The government has offered to provide the buses to transport the congregation to and from the site every week.
The Ciketing church originally met in the Pondok Timur Indah housing development with 10 families in 1990, and therefore has generally been called the HKBP Pondok Timur Indah.
“By 1995 it had grown to 30 families,” Manorangi Siahaan, a church member, told Compass.
In those days the worship services were held in different members’ homes. Manorangi acknowledged that the house church worship did spark some small protests.
Between 1990 and 2010, the church leaders requested building permits three separate times, in 1995, 2000 and 2010. Not once did the local government respond, church leaders said.
By 2005 the congregation had grown to 150, and church leaders bought a 2,170-square meter lot in Ciketing village, near Bekasi City, to construct a church building. They built a semi-permanent structure, which was later torn down because they lacked a building permit under pressure from an Islamic group claiming to speak for the local citizens. As a result, the congregation went back to worshipping in homes on a rotating basis.
In 2007 the congregation had grown to 300 people. They bought a house in Pondok Timur Indah, in the Mustika Jaya area of Bekasi City, to use for worship. The Bekasi government sealed the house on March 1 under pressure from Islamic groups. On July 2, the government sealed the house a second time because the congregation was continuing to worship there. Then on July 11, the church was forced to move their worship service to a vacant property in Ciketing, which had been readied for a church building. This site was about 3 kilometers from their property in Pondok Timur Indah.
Protests by Islamic groups mounted each Sunday at the Ciketing site, culminating in the attack on Pastor Simanjuntak and elder Hasian Sihombing, who was stabbed in the stomach and heart.
Report from Compass Direct News
Justice Minister says Article 301 defendants ‘presumed innocent’ until verdict.
ISTANBUL, May 28 (CDN) — The 11th hearing of a case of alleged slander against two Turkish Christians closed just minutes after it opened this week, due to lack of any progress.
Prosecutors produced no new evidence against Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal since the last court session four months ago. Despite lack of any tangible reason to continue the stalled case, their lawyer said, the Silivri Criminal Court set still another hearing to be held on Oct. 14.
“They are uselessly dragging this out,” defense lawyer Haydar Polat said moments after Judge Hayrettin Sevim closed the Tuesday (May 25) hearing.
Court-ordered attempts to locate and produce testimonies from two witnesses summoned three times now by the prosecution had again proved fruitless, the judge noted in Tuesday’s court record.
Murat Inan, the only lawyer who appeared this time on behalf of the prosecution team, arrived late at the courtroom, after the hearing had already begun.
The two Protestant Christians were accused in October 2006 of slandering the Turkish nation and Islam under Article 301 of the Turkish criminal code.
The prosecution has yet to provide any concrete evidence of the charges, which allegedly took place while the two men were involved in evangelistic activities in the town of Silivri, an hour’s drive west of Istanbul.
Both Tastan, 41, and Topal, 50, became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.
Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.
Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention for the past two years, ever since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals,
politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.
Two weeks ago, Turkish Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin commented before the United Nations Human Rights Council on the controversial May 2008 amendments to Article 301, under which Tastan and Topal are being tried.
Ergin insisted that the revised Article 301 had provided “a two-fold assurance” for freedom of expression in Turkey. The most significant revision required all Article 301 cases to obtain formal permission from the justice minister before being prosecuted.
This week Ergin released Justice Ministry statistics, noting that out of 1,252 cases filed under Article 301 during the past three years, only 83 were approved for prosecution.
Stressing the principle of “presumption of innocence,” Ergin went on to criticize the Turkish media for presenting Article 301 defendants as guilty when they were charged, before courts had heard their cases or issued verdicts.
But for Tastan and Topal, who by the next hearing will have been in trial for four years, Ergin’s comments were little comfort.
“At this point, we are tired of this,” Tastan admitted. “If they can’t find these so-called witnesses, then the court needs to issue a verdict. After four years, it has become a joke!”
Topal added that without any hard evidence, “the prosecution must produce a witness, someone who knows us. I cannot understand why the court keeps asking these witnesses to come and testify, when they don’t even know us, they have never met us or talked with us!”
Both men would like to see the trial concluded by the end of the year.
“From the beginning, the charges against us have been filled with contradictions,” Topal said. “But we are entirely innocent of all these charges, so of course we expect a complete acquittal.”
Daughter unable to attend school, church; acid thrown on her jacket.
CAIRO, Egypt, May 25 (CDN) — From the mosque across the street, words blasting from minaret megaphones reverberate throughout the tiny apartment where Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary is forced to hide. Immediately following afternoon prayers, the Friday sermon is, in part, on how to deal with Christians.
“Do not shake their hands. Do not go into their homes. Do not eat their food,” an imam shouts as El-Gohary, a convert to Christianity from Islam, looks through his window toward the mosque, shakes his head and grimaces.
“I hope one day to live in a place where there are no mosques,” he says. “How many megaphones do they need?”
For nearly two years, El-Gohary and his teenage daughter have been living in hiding because he abandoned Islam and embraced Christianity. During this time he has been beaten and forcibly detained, and his daughter has been attacked. He has had to endure death threats, poverty and crushing boredom.
Asked what gets him through the constant pressure of living on the run, El-Gohary said he wants to show the world how Christians are treated in Egypt.
“My main driving force is I want to prove to people the amount of persecution that Muslim converts and Christians face here, and that the persecution has been going on for 1,400 years,” he said.
When asked the same question, his 16-year-old daughter, Dina Maher Ahmad Mo’otahssem, pushed back tears and said one word.
El-Gohary, 57, and his daughter were forced into hiding shortly after August 2008, when he sued the national government to allow him to change the religion listed on his state-issued ID from Islam to Christianity.
El-Gohary followed in the footsteps of Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, 27, also a convert from Islam, in filing an ID case because he didn’t want his daughter to be forced to take Islamic education classes or have her declared an “apostate” by Egyptian Islamic authorities if she decided to stay a Christian into adulthood. Dina is required by law to possess an ID card. The ID card is used for everything from opening a bank account to receiving medical care. The identification also determines whether Egyptians are subject to Islamic civil courts.
Dina is the daughter of El-Gohary and his first wife, who is a Muslim. El-Gohary said that before he got married, he told his future wife that one day he would be baptized as a Christian. He said he now thinks she was convinced that he would eventually turn back to Islam. Over time, she grew tired of his refusal go back on his faith and complained to El-Gohary’s family, demanding a divorce.
“She started crying. She went to my parents and my brother and said, ‘This is not going to work out, I thought that he was going to change his mind. I didn’t think he was that serious about it,’” El-Gohary said. “She started talking about it to other people to the point where they started calling me from the loudspeakers of the local mosque, asking me what I was doing and ordering me to come back and pray.”
Eventually El-Gohary married another Muslim, and over the years she became a Christian. She has fled Egypt and lives in the United States; El-Gohary hasn’t seen her since March 2009.
On April 11, 2009, El-Gohary’s lawyers presented a conversion certificate from the Coptic Church in court. He obtained the certificate under court directions after going to Cyprus, at great expense, to obtain a baptismal certificate. The next month, the State Council, a consultative body of Egypt’s Administrative Court, provided the court with a report stating that El-Gohary’s change of faith violated Islamic law. They instructed that he should be subject to the death penalty.
In February 2009, lawyers opposing El-Gohary’s case advocated that he be sentenced to death for apostasy. On June 13, 2009, a Cairo judge rejected El-Gohary’s suit.
On Sept. 17, 2009, authorities at Cairo International Airport seized his passport. He was trying to travel to China with the eventual hope of going to the United States. On March 9, 2010, the Egyptian State Council Court in Giza, an administrative court, refused to return his passport. He has another hearing about the passport on June 29.
“I think it’s a kind of punishment, to set an example to other Muslims who want to convert,” El-Gohary said. “They want me to stay here and suffer to show other converts to be afraid. They are also afraid that if they let me go, then I will get out and start talking about what is happening in Egypt about the persecution and the injustice. We are trapped in our own country without even the rights that animals have.”
As recently as last week, El-Gohary and his daughter were living in a small, two-bedroom apartment across the street from a mosque on the outskirts of an undisclosed city in Egypt. The floor was littered with grime and bits of trash. Clumps of dust and used water bottles were everywhere.
El-Gohary had taped over the locks, as well as taped shut the inside of windows and doors, to guard against eavesdroppers and intruders. He had taped over all the drain holes of the sinks to keep anyone from pumping in natural gas at night.
Even the shower drain was taped over.
The yellow walls were faded, scuffed and barren, save for a single picture, a holographic portrait of Jesus, taped up in what qualified as a living room. El-Gohary motioned through a door to a porch outside. Rocks and pebbles thrown by area residents who recently learned that he lived there covered the porch.
“I would open the window, but I don’t want the rocks to start coming in,” he said.
El-Gohary has an old television set and a laptop with limited access to the Internet. Dina said she spends her time reading the Bible, talking to her father or drawing the occasional dress in preparation for obtaining her dream job, designing clothes.
Even the simple task of leaving El-Gohary’s apartment is fraught with risk. Every time he leaves, he places a padlock on the door, wraps it with a small plastic bag and melts the bag to the lock with a match.
El-Gohary cannot work and has to rely on the kindness of other Christians. People bring him food and water and the occasional donation. When the food runs out, he has to brave going outside.
“Our life is extremely, extremely hard. It’s hard for us to attend a church more than once because people will know it is us,” he said. “We can’t go to a supermarket more than once because we are going to be killed.”
Possibly the worst part for El-Gohary is watching his daughter suffer. A reflective youth with a gentle demeanor, Dina is quick to smile. But at a time when her life should be filled with friends, freedom and self-discovery, she is instead confined between four walls.
Even going to school, normally a simple thing, is fraught with dangerous possibilities. Dina hasn’t gone to school in about a year. She said that the last time she did, other students ridiculed her mercilessly, and a teacher hit her when she tried to attend religious classes for Christians instead of Muslims.
Now she and her father fear she could be beaten, kidnapped and forcibly converted, or simply killed. She can’t even go to church, she said.
“I don’t understand why I am being treated this way,” she said. “I believe in something, Christianity – I chose the religion because I love it. So why should I be treated this way?”
Dina was a little girl when she starting hearing about Jesus. Her father used to sit with her and tell her stories from the Bible, and he also told her about his conversion experience. Like her father, she cites a supernatural experience as a defining event in her faith.
One night, she said, she had a dream in which an enormous image of Jesus smiling appeared in a garden. She said the image became bigger and bigger until it touched the ground and became a golden church. She told her father about the dream, and since then she has believed in Christ.
Under Islamic law, Dina is considered a Muslim because her father was born as one. Because, like her father, Dina has decided to follow Christ, she is considered an “apostate” under most interpretations of Islamic law.
She gained national prominence in November 2009, when she wrote a letter, through a Coptic website, to U.S. President Barack Obama. She told the president that Muslims in the United States are treated much better than Copts in Egypt and asked why this was the case. She hopes the president will pressure the Egyptian government to ensure religious rights or let her and her father immigrate to the United States.
One afternoon last month, Dina was walking to a market with her father. As the two walked, El-Gohary noticed smoke and vapors coming off Dina’s jacket. The canvas was sizzling and dissolving. Someone had poured acid over the jacket. El-Gohary ripped it off her and threw it away.
“I asked people if they saw what happened and everyone said, ‘No, we didn’t see anything,’” El-Gohary said.
Luckily, Dina was not physically injured in the attack, but since then she has been terrified to go outside.
“I am very, very scared,” she said. “I haven’t gone outside since the attack happened.”
Change of Faith
El-Gohary, also known as Peter Athanasius, became a Christian 36 years ago while attending an academy for police trainees. During his second year of school, he became good friends with his roommate, a Copt and the only Christian in the academy. After watching cadets harass his roommate for praying, El-Gohary asked him why the others had ridiculed him.
“For me, it was the first time I had heard something like that,” El-Gohary said. “I didn’t have any Christian friends before, and I didn’t know about the level of persecution that takes place against Christians.”
Eventually, El-Gohary asked his friend for a Bible and took it home. His family tried to dissuade him from reading it.
“No, you can’t read the Bible,” his father told him. “It’s a really bad book.”
Undeterred, El-Gohary began reading the Bible in the privacy of his room. In the beginning, he said, the Bible was difficult to understand. But El-Gohary concentrated his efforts on the New Testament, and for the first time in his life, he said, he felt like God was speaking to him.
El-Gohary read the account of Jesus meeting the woman caught committing adultery, and the level of mercy that Jesus showed her transformed him, he said.
“Jesus said, ‘If anyone among you is without sin, then let him throw the first stone.’ The amount of forgiveness and love in this story really opened my eyes to the nature of Christianity,” El-Gohary said. “The main law that Jesus talked about was loving God ‘with all your heart, soul and mind.’ The basis of Christianity is love and forgiveness, unlike Islam, where it is based on revenge, fighting and war.”
Also, El-Gohary said, when he compared the two religions’ versions of heaven, he found that the Islamic version was about physical pleasure, whereas for Christians it was about being released from the physical world to be with God.
El-Gohary said his decision to follow Christ was final after he had a brilliant vision of light in his bedroom at his parents’ home, accompanied by the presence of “the peace of God.” El-Gohary said at first he thought he was seeing things, but then his father knocked on the door and demanded to know why the light was on. He told his father he was looking for something.
As a budding Christian convert, El-Gohary went back to the police academy and learned as much as he could about Christ and the Bible from his roommate. Persecution wasn’t long in coming.
One day an upperclassman spotted El-Gohary absent-mindedly drawing a cross on a notebook. The cadet sent El-Gohary to a superior for questioning.
El-Gohary avoided telling academy officials that his roommate had taught him about Christianity, but a captain at the school was able to piece together the evidence. The captain called El-Gohary’s father, a high-ranking officer at the academy, who in turn told the captain to make the young convert’s life “hell.”
Officials were imaginative in their attempts to break El-Gohary. He had to wake up before all the other students. He was ordered to carry his mattress around buildings and up and down flights of stairs. They exercised El-Gohary until he was about to pass out. Then they forced him to clean bathroom facilities with a toothbrush.
El-Gohary was not swayed from Christ, but he decided he couldn’t stay in what he said is the agency that “is the center of persecution against Christians” in Egypt. He tried numerous times to resign, but officials wouldn’t let him. Then he tried to get kicked out. Eventually, officials suspended the police cadet and sent him home for two weeks. At home, his family had a surprise waiting; they had hired an Islamic scholar to bring him back to Islam.
The scholar started by yelling Islamic teachings into El-Gohary’s ears, then moved on to write Quranic verses on his arms. El-Gohary remained seated and bore the humiliation in silence. Suddenly El-Gohary stood up, pinned the man against a wall and started yelling at him; the convert had caught the distinct smell of burning flesh – when he looked down at his arms, El-Gohary saw the scholar burning his hands with thin, smoldering iron rods.
“I said, ‘Enough! I have tolerated all of your talk. I have listened to all you have said, but this has gone too far,’” El-Gohary recalled. “The man said I had a ‘Christian demon’ inside me.”
As bad as things have been for El-Gohary and his daughter, their dedication seems rock-solid. They said they have never regretted their decisions to become Christians.
El-Gohary said that eventually, he will triumph.
“By law, my circumstance will have to change,” he said. “I have done nothing illegal.”
Dina is not so sure; she said she doesn’t feel like she has a future in Egypt, and she hopes to move to a place where she can get an education.
Whatever happens, both El-Gohary and his daughter said they are prepared to live in hiding indefinitely.
“There are days that I break down and cry, but I am not giving up,” Dina said. “I am still not going back to Islam.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Employer charges non-Muslims at least 400 percent interest.
LAHORE, Pakistan, May 14 (CDN) — A low-wage Pakistani Christian said his Muslim employer last week forced him to sell his kidney in an effort to pay off a loan his boss made at exorbitant interest rates charged only to non-Muslims.
John Gill, a molding machine operator at Shah Plastic Manufacturers in the Youhanabad area of Lahore, said he took a loan of 150,000 rupees (US$1,766) – at 400 percent interest – from employer Ghulam Mustafa in 2007 in order to send his 17-year-old daughter to college.
“I kept paying the installments every month from my salary, but after three years I got tired of paying the huge interest on the loan,” Gill told Compass.
The employer denied that he had received payment installments from his Christian worker, although Gill said he had receipts for monthly payments.
Mustafa confirmed that he took over Gill’s home last week after giving the Christian two weeks to pay off the outstanding interest on the loan. Then, on May 6, Mustafa came to Gill’s home with “about five armed men” and transported him to Ganga Ram hospital, where they forced him to sell his kidney against his will, the Christian said.
“They sold my kidney and said that they will come next month for the rest of the money,” Gill said.
The value of the kidney was estimated at around 200,000 rupees (US$2,380), leaving Gill with outstanding debt of about 250,000 rupees (US$2,976), he said. Recovering at home, Gill said he did not know he would repay the rest of the debt.
Mustafa told Compass that Gill owed him 400 percent interest on the loan.
“I only offer 50 percent interest to Muslim employees,” he said, adding that he refused to take less than 400 percent interest from any non-Muslim.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ganga Ram hospital. Rights groups, however, have complained that hundreds of rich foreigners come to Pakistan every year to buy kidneys from live, impoverished donors.
Kidney failure is increasingly common in rich countries, often because of obesity or hypertension, but a growing shortage of transplant organs has fueled a black market that exploits needy donors such as Gill and risks undermining voluntary donation schemes, according to Pakistan’s Kidney Foundation.
Pakistani legislation aimed at curbing trafficking in human kidneys has not ended a business that has turned the country into the world’s “kidney bazaar,” critics say.
Gill said he is trying to contact local Christian advocacy groups to help him recover and overcome his financial and spiritual difficulties. Christians are a minority in heavily Islamic Pakistan, where rights groups have lamented discrimination against Christian workers.
Report from Compass Direct News
Fulani herdsmen strike Christian villages, slaying mainly ethnic Berom with machetes.
LAGOS, Nigeria, March 8 (CDN) — An uneasy calm prevailed in Plateau state, Nigeria today following the killing of hundreds of Christians early yesterday morning in three farming villages near Jos by ethnic Fulani Muslims.
The mostly ethnic Berom victims included many women and children killed with machetes by rampaging Fulani herdsmen. About 75 houses were also burned.
State Information Commissioner Gregory Yenlong confirmed that about 500 persons were killed in the attacks, which took place mainly in Dogo Nahawa, Zot and Rastat villages.
“We were woken up by gunshots in the middle of the night, and before we knew what was happening, our houses were torched and they started hacking down people” survivor Musa Gyang told media.
The assailants reportedly came on foot from a neighboring state to beat security forces that had been alerted of a possible attack on the villages but did not act beforehand.
The attack on Sunday is the latest in several religious clashes in the state in recent months that have claimed lives and property. Plateau state is a predominantly Christian state in a country almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. The Muslim minority has been contesting ownership of some parts of the state, leading to frequent clashes.
Bishop Andersen Bok, national coordinator of the Plateau State Elders Christian Fellowship, along with group Secretary General Musa Pam, described the attack as yet another “jihad and provocation on Christians.”
“Dogo Nahawa is a Christian community,” the Christian leaders said in a statement. “Eyewitnesses say the Hausa Fulani Muslim militants were chanting ‘Allah Akbar,’ broke into houses, cutting human beings, including children and women with their knives and cutlasses.”
Soon after the militants besieged Dogo Nahawa, the Christian leaders said, at 1:30 a.m. they contacted the military, which is in charge of security in the state.
“But we were shocked to find out that the soldiers did not react until about 3:30 a.m., after the Muslim attackers had finished their job and left,” they stated. “We are tired of these genocides on our Christian brothers and state here that we will not let this go unchallenged.”
Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) President Ayo Oritsejafor decried the attack on the Christian community as barbaric and urged the federal government to stop the killing of innocent citizens or risk a total breakdown of law and order.
“I have just returned from a trip abroad,” he said. “While I was away, I was inundated with reports of another catastrophe in the Jigawa state capital, where several churches were burnt, and just as I was trying to settle down and collate reports from the field, I am hearing of another on Sunday morning.”
Director of Social Communications, Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Rev. Monsignor Gabriel Osu said the Sunday killing in Jos is a major setback for the country’s effort to gain the confidence of the international community.
“Do you know that because of things like these, anywhere Nigerians travel to they are subjected to dehumanizing scrutiny?” he said. “Any act of violence at this time is totally condemned, and the government should make haste to fish out all identified perpetrators of such heinous crimes against God so that we can move forward as a people united under one umbrella.”
On Friday (March 5) the National Youth President of the PFN, Dr. Abel Damina, expressed concern over cases of clandestine killings of Christians in remote parts of Plateau state by Islamic extremists and called on the federal government to retrieve sophisticated weapons in their possession.
“Even as I speak to you now, I am receiving reports that some clandestine killings are still going on in the remote areas of Plateau State by the fundamentalists,” Damina reportedly said. “They pounce on Christians and kill them without anybody knowing much of their identity except that they are Christians.”
He added that recently he visited the governor in Jos regarding the crisis and secured photos of Christian victims.
“Young men, Christians, were going to their farm to harvest their produce and the fundamentalists pounced on them,” he said. “They were called infidels. At the last conference, we received reports with photographs of the fundamentalists using AK-47 rifles to destroy our churches. Where did they get the arms from? We have reports of truck loads of arms that had been intercepted, and we did not hear anything about them.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Proposed amendment reportedly shot down after international outcry.
LOS ANGELES, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – A member of Iran’s Parliament reportedly revealed last week that the country’s Parliamentary Committee has stricken the mandatory death penalty for those who leave Islam from proposals for an amended penal code.
Citing a BBC Persian news service report on Tuesday (June 23), United Kingdom-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) announced on Friday (June 26) that a member of Iran’s Legal and Judicial Committee of Parliament, Ali Shahrokhi, had told the Iranian state news agency (IRNA) of the decision to eliminate the mandatory death penalty amendment, which had drawn international protests.
The Parliamentary Committee had come under intense international pressure to drop clauses from the Islamic Penal Code Bill that allowed stoning and made death the mandatory punishment for apostates.
The new penal code was originally approved in September 2008 by a preliminary parliamentary vote of 196-7.
In Friday’s statement, CSW said that the bill must now pass through a final parliamentary vote before being sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it.
The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.
The Christian and Baha’i communities of Iran are most likely to be affected by this decision. Iran has been criticized for its treatment of Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Christians, who have all suffered under the current regime.
Joseph Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said the timing of the announcement of the decision during protests over contested elections might not be coincidental.
“Were the regime to maintain [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s presidency then pass and enforce a restrictive penal code, the international pressure on Iran would be unbearable for the regime,” said Grieboski. “I do not consider it a sign of opening up. Instead, I see it as a sign of self-preservation.”
Huge protests over the election results demonstrated considerable opposition to the Iranian government’s heavy-handed tactics, and although the official churches have taken no official stance, many Christians have supported the opposition, according to sources connected to social networking sites.
In the face of the massive protests, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Hassan Qashqavi, released a statement condemning Western involvement in Iranian affairs and accusing the BBC and Voice of America networks of spreading “anarchy and vandalism.”
This passing of blame bodes ill for minorities in the country, including Christians, whom the Iranian government sees as pawns of the West; they could expect even harsher treatment in a feared post-election clamp-down.
“Since minorities, especially Baha’is and Christians, are often seen as fronts for the West, we can expect that they will feel the greatest backlash by the regime during the protests, and I would argue an even worse crackdown on them if Ahmadinejad and [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei come out of this,” said Grieboski.
An Iranian Christian who requested anonymity told Compass that both Christians and Iranians as a whole were tired of the dictatorial regime and asked for prayers for relief.
“The people are really tired, they have no hope, mentally, financially, spiritually, it is really difficult to live in Iran,” the source said. “You can’t have a private life, you can’t make a decision about what you believe, women can’t even decide what to wear. We just pray for the whole nation.”
The Iranian source was reticent to predict how the government might react to Christians following the elections but said that if there were a reaction, they could be among the first victims.
“So what the reaction of the government will be we can’t be 100 percent sure,” the source said, “but they could have a very radical reaction.”
Iranian Christians Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were arrested on March 5 for their Christian activities, are still held in the notorious Evin Prison. The facility has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years.
Compass has learned that the women have been placed in solitary confinement.
Report from Compass Direct News