One other Christian, victim of assault, remains hospitalized.

ISTANBUL, August 20 (Compass Direct News) – Two Coptic Christians in Egypt have been arrested and are being held without charge after reporting to police they had been beaten by a mob, an attorney for the men said yesterday.

On the evening of July 31, Reda Hnein, 35, his brother Nagi Hnein Fawzi, 27, and their uncle Youssef Fawzi Iskandar, 58, all Coptic farmers, were leading a cow down a road in the village of Al-Fashn when the attack happened. Al-Fashn is about 87 miles (140 kilometers) south of Cairo along the Nile River in the state of Minya.

During the trip, two Muslim men riding a motorbike crashed into the cow. An argument ensued, and a mob of about 10 other Muslim men joined into the disagreement and began beating the Copts with sticks, said Ihab Ramzi, an attorney representing the three Coptic men.

Reda Hnein and Iskandar received minor injuries. Fawzi, however, suffered a fractured skull and lacerations on his scalp. He was taken to Minya University Hospital, where he regained consciousness earlier this week but remains hospitalized, according to his family.

On the day of the incident, Hnein and Iskandar went to police to file a complaint. They were told to return the next day to file a report with an investigating attorney. But after they gave their report the next day, local police arrested the two men on orders of Egypt’s State Security Investigations, a political police force run by the Interior minister.

The men were not charged with any crime. They were told they were arrested for “security reasons,” a euphemism commonly used under Egypt’s longstanding Emergency Law. The law, enacted after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, allows authorities to hold people without charge. Hnein and Iskandar are being held at Abu Zabal prison, according to a cousin.

The cousin added that no contact with the two men has been allowed. The family found out the whereabouts of the men only through a third party.

The cousin, whose name was withheld for safety reasons, said she is “boiling” with anger. “How can the police turn an innocent victim into a criminal?” she said. “How can they treat a victim like a criminal? It is most unfair.”

Despite several attempts, state law enforcement officials in Al-Fashn could not be contacted for comment.

All three men were congregants of a local Coptic church. Attorney Ramzi said that hostility toward Copts is common in the state of Minya.

This month’s arrest is one in a recent spate of incidents in the area. Earlier this summer, two Copts were arrested for allegedly setting fire to their own house church, despite eyewitness accounts of other men drenching the building with kerosene. On June 6, Muslim mobs attacked a building in Ezbet Boushra-East because they suspected it would be converted into a Christian worship place. On July 3, the same thing happened at a building in Ezbet Guirgis Bey.

This month’s incident, however, “exceeded all expectations,” Ramzi said. “The victims are being treated as criminals,” he said, adding that incidents like the one in Al Fashn will only encourage more violence.

“The Muslims will know that if they attack Christians, they will not be arrested,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Supreme Court rules their rights were violated; violence threatened in Chiapas.

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 13 (Compass Direct News) – At least 20 men accused of participating in a massacre in Chiapas state in December 1997 left prison early this morning – amid concerns over threats of violence at their home communities near San Cristobal de las Casas – following a Supreme Court ruling yesterday that their convictions violated fundamental norms of justice.

The release of the 20 men, most of them evangelical Christians, came after Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in a 4-1 decision that they had been convicted in unfair trials in which prosecutors fabricated testimony and illegally obtained evidence. Area evangelicals view the imprisoned Christians as caught between survivors clamoring for convictions and government police and military forces eager to shift blame away from their minions following the Dec. 22, 1997 killing of 45 civilians in Acteal village.

“Acteal is a double tragedy,” attorney Javier Cruz Angulo reportedly said after the ruling. “On the one hand you have an abominable massacre, and on the other more than 50 human beings imprisoned without proofs.”

The court will review the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre, and six more will be given new trials, according to news reports.

The identities of those released were not immediately known. As 32 of those imprisoned for the crime were Christians and another 15 received Christ while in prison, most of the previous total of 57 prisoners are Christians.

“In prison, the majority of us converted to the Presbyterian faith,” Tomas Perez Mendez, 60, told El Universal before the Supreme Court decision; at press time it was not known if he was among those released.

He told the Mexican newspaper that he bears no resentment even though his imprisonment led to illnesses that contributed to the deaths of family members. “My wife is ill, my father and one brother died from sorrow at seeing us here in prison . . . I no longer feel anger or resentment against those who accused me, and I plan to preach.”

Authorities had told a total of 57 prisoners that they would be freed after their paperwork was reviewed, a source in Chiapas told Compass.

“Naturally, those prisoners who had been informed of their impending release last week are extremely disappointed, as well wondering if they will ever be released,” said the source, who requested anonymity.

Two brothers, Pablo and Juan Hernandez Perez, reportedly said that they have no home to return to; their house was burned to the ground while they were in prison. Another hoping for release, Javier Vazquez Luna, told El Universal he played no part in the crime, and that indeed his father was one of the victims of the massacre.

The Supreme Court justices stated that they were not ruling on the guilt or innocence of the men, only on the violation of due process.

“During the investigation, their constitutional rights were violated,” the court said in a statement. “The majority of cases … were based on the use of illegally obtained evidence.”

In recent months relatives of the imprisoned men ratcheted up citizen campaigns seeking their freedom, backed by many others. For several years Presbyterian churches have carried banners outside their buildings requesting justice for those wrongly convicted in the Acteal violence. The Chiapas government had said it could do nothing because the case was under federal jurisdiction.

Pressure to reopen the case has intensified each December with remembrances of the massacre. In spite of intense political pressure to the contrary, the Supreme Court finally agreed to review the facts.

Threats of Violence

Amid statements by survivors of the Acteal crime that tensions could heighten in the area – and a grim warning from a former leader of Las Abejas, a supposedly non-violent group sympathetic to rebel militants whose members were killed in the massacre – defense attorneys and family members of the released men appealed to authorities to provide security and guarantee social peace.

“A former leader of the Abejas made a public declaration that if the men returned to their homes, the Abejas would be waiting for them, and the released prisoners would be repaid for the pain they caused 12 years ago,” the Chiapas source told Compass. “Tensions exist, and with statements like he made, the government is nervous about letting the men return to their homes due to possible violence. At this point, there are still no violent actions, but the threat of an outbreak is real.”

At press time authorities had prevented the released men from returning to the Acteal area, keeping them in a hotel in Berriozabal after loading them onto a truck through a back door of the El Amate prison at 3:35 a.m., El Universal reported.

Initially the prison director refused to see the men’s lawyers when they arrived at El Amate prison in Chiapas near midnight with orders for their release, the Compass source said.

“When he finally relented and met with the lawyers, it was only under extreme pressure from the Mexico City lawyers who refused to be dissuaded,” the source said. “There was an extended time of wrangling before the warden eventually released the prisoners, only under threat of returning to the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Commission about his intransigence.”

The released men had been promised there would be a government-paid bus waiting to take them to San Cristobal de las Casas, he said, but instead they were taken to the hotel in Berriozabal.

“The men were to meet with government officials today in Tuxtla, and we are still awaiting word on their arrival in San Cristobal after some five hours of waiting,” the source said. “It appears there are delaying tactics, hindrances and lack of cooperation in the entire release process.”

Some of the released men were able to meet with family members, and most expressed desire to return to the Acteal area, but the prison director said that authorities had determined that it was not safe for them to go back to their communities, according to El Universal. Authorities have reportedly proposed the possibility of providing them land parcels to avoid their returning to the area of the original conflict.

The evangelical Christians convicted were serving 25- or 36-year sentences and had exhausted all appeals. Some of them say they were arrested because rebel sympathizers with whom they had been embroiled in years of land disputes named them. Others said they were simply nearby when authorities made random round-ups.

Of the 34 men originally convicted, one died in prison and another had been released as a minor.

The family of one prisoner, Agustin Gomez Perez, tried to visit him in 2005. He told El Universal that they had an accident on the way, killing one small child and putting his wife in the hospital for 20 days – leaving their other five children without parents during that period.

Controversy over who killed the 45 people has revolved around whether there was a “massacre” by numerous “paramilitary” villagers or a “confrontation” between a handful of neighboring peasants and Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels. Historian Héctor Aguilar Camín has argued that there was both a confrontation and a massacre, with some overlap between each, but that they were largely separate incidents.

Five confessed killers have testified that they and four others engaged only Zapatista militia to avenge the death of a relative, while the federal attorney general’s office charged that at least 50 pro-government “paramilitaries” descended on a relief camp hermitage full of displaced peasants bent on killing and robbing them. The testimonies of the five confessed killers – four others remain at large – agree that the nine avengers were the only ones involved in the firefights, and that the decision to attack the Zapatistas was a private family decision made with no involvement from government authorities.

They also agree that the sole motive was to avenge the assassination of a relative – the latest of 18 unprosecuted murders by Zapatistas over the previous three months, according to Aguilar Camín.

Government prosecutors unduly dismissed much of the testimony of the five confessed avengers, Aguilar Camín wrote in a 2007 article for Nexos, noting that the killers testified that state security forces were nearby and did nothing. He highlights the judicial irregularities of the round-up and conviction of the peasants – apprehensions without evidence or warrant, charging 83 people with homicide when only 45 people were killed and lack of translators and attorneys for the suspects, Tzotzil Mayans who did not know Spanish.

The Supreme Court pointed out those violations in its ruling. Arturo Farela Gutierrez, head of the National Association of Evangelical Christian Churches, praised the court decision.

“We are in the presence of a court different from that of 12 years ago,” he said, according to El Universal. “The court is strengthened without fear of anything or anyone, and it’s the court that democratic Mexico needs.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Strangely, officers arrest Copts; roof collapses after Muslim suspects set fire to church building.

ISTANBUL, July 17 (Compass Direct News) – Villagers in Ezbet Basillious, Minya suspect local police in Egypt of corruption and collusion after two Copts were arrested for an arson attack on their own house church on Saturday (July 11).

Egyptian State Security Investigations (SSI) officers later arrested three Muslim suspects in accordance with eyewitness testimony that local police had ignored. The suspects were seen entering the Church of St. Abaskharion Kellini with cans of kerosene and leaving it shortly after, shouting “Allahu Akbar [God is great].”

The two Copts who were arrested, 35-year-old Reda Gamal and Fulla Assad, 30, are still in custody.

Suspicions of police collusion come not only from the inexplicable arrests of the Copts but also from the lack of police presence while the church was burning. Guards who were stationed outside the property had left their posts, and according to some reports they had moved to a nearby café and were drinking tea while the property burned.

“It sounds like a pre-arranged situation, that they [the arsonists] knew this was the agreed time, [when] the guards were away,” a source told Compass. “Mahmoud Muhammad Hussein, the head guard, and Mustafa Moussa, one of the village guards, were heard telling people, ‘Say Reda set fire to the church.’ So the local police were involved.”

The attack in Ezbet Basillious, 90 kilometers south of Cairo, took place shortly before noon. The perpetrators entered the building where the church met using a connecting door from an adjoining residence. The fire cracked walls and caused the roof to cave in.

It took police two hours to arrive at the scene, according to Suleiman Faiz, a local schoolteacher.

Three Copts were taken to the police station, initially only for questioning – Gamal, Assad and Assad’s 75-year-old mother-in-law. Assad and her mother-in-law live in a home next to the house used by the church, and it was through their connecting door that the attackers entered the locked building.

The two women were present in the house at the time and witnessed three men carrying cans of kerosene. Mary Abdelmassih, a reporter for the Assyrian International News Agency, said the arsonists threatened them at knife-point to remain quiet and not call for help.

After questioning, Assad and her mother-in-law returned home. The following day Assad was arrested, and at press time she and Gamal were still being held.

“This Copt, Gamal, they took him as a pawn in order that later they could twist the church’s arm to give up its rights,” Abdelmassih said. “This happens every time, there is no change in the scenario at all.”

Buildings in Egypt require government permission to be used for religious gatherings, and typically churches find it very difficult to obtain.

Officials promised the Abaskharion Kellini house church a prayer license on July 3 that would enable the building in which it meets to be used as a place of prayer; the congregation has struggled in vain for 30 years to construct another church building for worship. Having received verbal assurance that a prayer license would be granted for the building in which it met, the diocese’s bishop held a consecration service there, and SSI officials then closed the house church and placed it under guard pending formal permission.

The attack marked the third recent incident of violence against the Coptic community in Minya, with new church premises being the precipitating factor in each case. Muslim mobs on June 6 attacked a building in Ezbet Boushra-East on suspicion that it would be converted into a worship place, and the same thing happened on July 3 at a building in Ezbet Guirgis Bey.

“People are really fed up, and if they lose patience there will be fighting in the streets,” a source who requested anonymity told Compass. “A lot of young people are getting so exhausted from this persecution that they might do anything; they’ve had enough.”

Schoolteacher Faiz, 34, told Compass that initially the attack on the Abaskharion Kellini house church made him and others angry.

“You can imagine the amount of anger one would have to a very unfair situation like this,” he said. “Equality and justice for everybody is essential. We love Egypt and would like it to take its place among the respectable nations on earth.”

Faiz said he hopes some day Egypt becomes free of corrupt police in order to have full freedom of religion.

“We trust that these little actions and these little conspiracies from low-ranking police forces, and those who have infiltrated police with radical ideas, which are against the country’s interest, are found out and corrected,” he said. “Because we still trust the higher ranking people in leadership.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Violence erupts on mere suspicion of a prayer meeting.

ISTANBUL, June 25 (Compass Direct News) – Nearly 1,000 Coptic Christians in Egypt are hiding in their homes after clashes erupted Sunday (June 21) between them and their village’s majority-Muslim population over the use of a three-story building belonging to the Coptic Church.

When on Sunday at 11 a.m. a group of 25 Christians from Cairo stopped in Ezbet Boshra-East, a village of about 3,000 people three hours south of Cairo by car, few villagers failed to take notice. Planning to visit local Christians and the Rev. Isaac Castor, the group had gathered outside the building owned by the Coptic Church, where the priest lives with his family.

Castor said only six of them had entered the building when Muslim neighbors approached the rest of the group waiting outside and began taunting them. A Muslim woman walked up to one of the visiting women, he said, and slapped her.

Soon village youths gathered and started throwing stones at the visitors and the building, and according to Castor within minutes hundreds of villagers, Muslims against Christians, were fighting each other in the streets of Ezbet Boshra-East. Castor’s car was also vandalized.

“They were all over the streets hitting each other with sticks and their fists,” Castor told Compass from his home by phone. “Some people were on top of buildings throwing stones; it was like a civil war.”

Sectarian tensions have previously flared in the village. Last July, when Castor first moved to Ezbet Boshra-East with his family, Muslims vandalized Christians’ farmlands and poisoned their domestic animals after services took place at the building owned by the church, according to International Christian Concern.

Since last July’s incidents, authorities have stipulated that only two Christians at a time can visit the building, and according to Castor this was the source of the fighting that erupted in front of the building on Sunday. The neighbors thought he was conducting a prayer meeting and not adhering to the rule set by local authorities.

In the violent clash in front of the church-owned building, 17 Christians and eight Muslims were estimated to have been injured. According to various reports, nearly 19 Coptic Christians were arrested and released the following day, along with the injured Muslims.

So far there is no concrete information on how the Christians were treated while in prison. During the arrests of the Christians, police vandalized many of their homes. Egyptian sources told Compass that police often turn the homes of those whom they arrest “upside down.”

Soon after the clashes, electricity and phone services were cut. Electricity was restored after 24 hours, but at press time telephones were still not operating. All communications happen via mobile phones.

Authorities also imposed a 6 p.m. curfew on the entire village, but Castor said Christians were too afraid to come out of their homes and were living off personal food stockpiles. He also said that a number of families had left the village to stay with friends and relatives in nearby towns and villages. Eyewitnesses visiting Ezbet Boshra-East yesterday confirmed that although there were Muslim villagers outside, there were no Christians walking on the streets.

Procedures vs. Tolerance

There is no church building in Ezbet Boshra-East, and so far the Coptic Church has not sought to obtain permission to build one. Nor has it officially applied for permission to use the three-story building as a place of prayer as an official association.

When a reporter from a major Egyptian TV channel asked Castor by telephone whether he had obtained permission for prayer and worship for the building purchased by the church, he responded, “Do I need to have permission if I was called to pray for a sick person?” He admitted in the interview, however, that obtaining permission would help to avoid clashes and that authorities should grant it quickly.

There are other villages around Ezbet Boshra-East, such as Talt three kilometers away, where there are Coptic associations. Also, official churches are established in Ezbet Boshra-West and El Fashn, both 15 kilometers (nine miles) away.

Castor said poor Muslim-Christian relations are reflected in the lack of an area church.

“There is no love or tolerance for each other, and I think this is wrong,” Castor said. “I’m worried about the future. I’m worried about the freedom of religion and the inability to build churches. There is bias. It is unfair and unacceptable that people don’t have the freedom of worship. If the current policies continue, the hate will continue.”

The village-wide violence on Sunday harkened to sectarian violence in Upper Egypt in 2000 in the area of El Kosheh, said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of U.K.-based United Copts.

“This degree of radicalization is a bad sign for the future of Egypt, when there is so much hate for people who are basically peaceful and just want to pray,” said Habib.

Egypt’s constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship under Article 46.

“What’s the value of a statement like this if it is not put into action?” he said of Article 46, adding that when government agencies do not promote freedom of worship but instead “become agents of persecution, they make a mockery of the constitution.”

Habib also expressed dismay that a whole village took umbrage only because they suspected a prayer meeting.

“How can private worship annoy people?” he said. “They are not broadcasting it. This is not fair. I’m really annoyed. They say Islam is tolerant, but is this tolerant? This is not tolerant at all.”

Other Non-Governmental Organizations in Egypt said that they expect reconciliation meetings to take place in Ezbet Boshra-East in the coming weeks.

Report from Compass Direct News


Judge ignores video evidence of officers’ unwarranted, violent attack on café.

ISTANBUL January 29 (Compass Direct News) – Following a brutal raid on six Christian brothers and their café because they had opened for business during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, a judge on Jan. 22 sentenced them to three years in prison with hard labor for resisting arrest and assaulting authorities.

Last September, 13 police officers raided the café in Port Sa’id, a city in Egypt’s Nile delta, overturning tables, breaking chairs and smashing glasses and hookah pipes, according to the Coptic Christians’ lawyer. They beat the brothers with sticks, leaving two with broken arms and a third needing 11 stitches for a head wound.

“The police attacked these people and assaulted them unjustifiably,” said Ramses el-Nagar, the Christians’ lawyer. “Police did not want to see people eating during Ramadan. This is unfair, because whatever people’s beliefs are, the law is something else and they should not be mixed.”

There is no law in Egypt under which the brothers could be prosecuted for opening their café during Ramadan. When they tried to defend their café, the brothers, all in their 30s, were arrested on Sept. 8 and charged with resisting arrest and assaulting authorities. They were held for 30 days before being released on bail, set at 12,000 Egyptian pounds (US$2,173).

At the trial last week, defense counsel showed a video of the incident shot by an onlooker as evidence of police brutality. The footage did not sway Judge Mohammed Hassan El-Mahmody, prompting some Coptic activists to claim religious zeal and prejudice as the true motives behind the convictions.

“The police very often pressure the Copts to accept unfair situations,” said El-Nagar. “Unfortunately, with the power of the police and Egypt being a police state, we don’t have the inclination to take the police to court.”

The names of the imprisoned Christian brothers are Ashraf Morris Ghatas; Magdy Morris Ghatas; Osama Morris Ghatas; Nabil Morris Ghatas; Walid Morris Ghatas; and Hany Morris Ghatas.

Ibrahim Habib, chairman of advocacy group United Copts of Great Britain, told Compass that Egypt needs to take certain steps for progress toward justice.

“What we would like to see is the government implementing the law, showing fairness, maintaining total separation between the state and religion, and removing the second article from the Egyptian constitution,” which makes Islamic law the source of statutory law, he said. “We would like to see Egypt free and treating all citizens equally.”

El-Nagar has 30 days to appeal the decision before the Court of Cassation, a high appeals tribunal. He said he plans to do so.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Detained since January, Alimjan Yimit awaits new court date.

DUBLIN, November 11 (Compass Direct News) – Chinese officials have yet to declare a new court date for Alimjan Yimit, a Christian house church leader and ethnic Uyghur in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang detained since his arrest on Jan. 12.

Alimjan’s name appears as Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese documents.

State prosecutors in mid-October returned Alimjan’s case to a Xinjiang court for consideration, China Aid Association (CAA) reported. Court officials have refused to release details of the case to the public, but sources told Compass that further legal action is expected imminently.

Charges against Alimjan include “inciting secessionist sentiment to split the country” and “collecting and selling intelligence for overseas organizations,” CAA reported in June. Officials have threatened to hand down a sentence ranging from as much as six years in prison to execution.

Once a Muslim, Alimjan converted to Christianity more than 10 years ago and became active in the growing Uyghur church. Friends said they believe his faith is the real reason for his arrest.

His wife Gulnur has consistently proclaimed his innocence, pointing out that as an agricultural worker he had no access to information affecting national security and therefore could not be guilty of leaking such information.

Alimjan’s hair, dark when police arrested him on Jan. 12, is now graying as a result of harsh conditions in detention, sources said.

During Alimjan’s employment with two foreign-owned companies, officials from the State Security Bureau (SSB) regularly called him in for interrogation, forbidding him to discuss the questioning with anyone.

In September 2007, they closed the business Alimjan worked for and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity among people of Uyghur ethnicity.”

Lawyers had hoped for an early acquittal for Alimjan based on evidence of unfair treatment due to his Christian beliefs. A lengthy bureaucratic process, however, has dimmed these hopes.

A trial was initially scheduled for April but postponed while court documents – including interrogation records from the Xinjiang SSB – were translated from Uyghur into Chinese.

When the case was heard on May 27, court officials allowed Alimjan’s two lawyers to be present but banned his wife from entering the courtroom due to the “sensitivity” of the case. After deliberations the court returned the case to state prosecutors citing insufficient evidence. (See Compass Direct News, “Court Cites ‘Insufficient Evidence’ in Christian’s Trial,” May 30.)

In September, Public Security Bureau officers in Xinjiang returned the case to state prosecutors, who again presented it to the court for consideration in October.


Another Uyghur Christian’s Appeal Denied

A second Uyghur Christian, Osman Imin, has aged dramatically and his health has deteriorated due to conditions in a labor camp where he is forced to work 12 to 15 hours per day.

In Chinese documents, Osman’s name appears as Wusiman Yaming.

The State Security Bureau in Hetian City, Xinjiang in September 2007 sentenced Osman to two years of re-education through labor for “revealing state secrets” and “illegal proselytizing.” Associates, however, said his arrest had nothing to do with disclosure of state secrets but with the fact that he was an outspoken Christian and a leader in the Uyghur church.

Authorities first arrested Osman in October 2004, holding him in a detention center in Hotan, southern Xinjiang, for an unspecified “violation of law,” according to CAA.

During his initial detention, Osman was chained to a metal bed and beaten repeatedly during interrogations, a source that spoke on condition of anonymity told Compass. (See Compass Direct News, “Uyghur Christians Arrested, Jailed in Xinjiang,” February 11.)

Osman was released on bail on Nov. 18, 2004 and bail was canceled in October 2006. On July 26, 2007, however, he was again placed under supervised house arrest and finally detained by police on Nov. 19 for allegedly leaking state secrets.

Officials had called for a 10- to 15-year criminal sentence, but after international media attention they reduced the term to two years in labor camp.

When Osman’s lawyer Liang Xiaojun appealed his sentence in June, court authorities insisted on a closed hearing on grounds that the case involved confidential information, CAA reported. They turned down the appeal, refusing to explain why and denying Osman proper access to his lawyer, which violated normal court procedure.

Compass previously reported that officials had arrested and detained a third Uyghur believer, a woman from southern Xinjiang. Further investigation revealed that both she and her husband were arrested on charges of theft.

Report from Compass Direct News


Despite a fatwa from the Grand Mufti, Alexandria judge denies custody for mother.

ISTANBUL, October 2 (Compass Direct News) – Following the Appeal Court of Alexandria on Sept. 24 granting custody of 13-year-old Christian twins to their Muslim father, their mother lives with the fear that police will take away her children at any moment.

Kamilia Gaballah has fought with her ex-husband Medhat Ramses Labib over alimony support and custody of sons Andrew and Mario in 40 different cases since he left her and converted to Islam so that he could remarry in 1999.

The court ruled in favor of Labib in spite of Egyptian law’s Article 20, which grants custody of children to their mothers until the age of 15, and a fatwa (religious ruling) from Egypt’s most respected Islamic scholar, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, giving her custody.

“This decision was dangerous because it was not taken in accordance with Egyptian law but according to sharia [Islamic] law,” said Naguib Gobraiel, Gaballah’s lawyer and president of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations.

He explained that Egypt’s civic code calls for children under the age of 15 to stay with their mother regardless of their religion. Gobraiel said that sharia tends to favor the Muslim parent in such cases.

“They want to stay with their mother,” said Gobraiel. “They don’t know anything about Islam and sharia. They are Christians and go to church on Sundays.”

The twins have publicly stated their faith, and during a test in a mandatory religious class two years ago they scribbled only, “I am a Christian” on their answer sheets and otherwise turned them in blank. The twins intend to go on a hunger strike if they are forced to live with their Muslim father, whom they hardly know, sources said.

“We only want one thing,” said Gobraiel. “We want the law to be applied in our cases like this one, not the sharia, because the government owes us citizenship. This is a civilized, secular country, not a religious country.”

The decision of the presiding judge, El Sayed El Sherbini, to give the father full custody is not even based on sharia but is purely arbitrary, Gaballah and her eldest son George Medhat Ramses claimed, since the country’s State Mufti had granted custody to the mother in April 2006.

“We don’t want to give them to anyone or comply with the sentence,” Ramses told Compass. “All the legal ways have been wrong to us. We’ve been trying to make it as legal as we can, but the court has not been fair.”

Ramses, 21, who is also a Christian and lives with his mother and two little brothers, said the judged showed bias in favor of his father because he converted to Islam shortly after he left Gaballah.

“The decision was unfair and oppressive,” Gaballah told Compass. “I am treated differently than other Egyptians, as if this is not my own country.”

Gaballah, who has been fighting to keep her sons since the court decided in 2006 that custody of her sons should be given to her ex-husband, fears that her children will grow up without hope and a sense of justice.

“I am so sad and afraid about their psychology,” she said, “because they are facing something that is fundamentally against all the principles I have taught them.”

Gaballah said she is ready to keep fighting with the few means left in her power to keep her sons, even if it means tarnishing her with a criminal record by not handing them over to their father.

“And I’m determined to get justice in my own country, because it is my natural right and my sons’ right,” she said. “I cannot see how I can comply with the people who are taking my rights away from me and taking my children from me to give them to an unworthy father and another woman.”

Labib is now married to his third wife, with whom he has a 4-year-old son. He is a businessman working in exports and travels between Alexandria and Cairo.

Gobraiel said that he intends to send a clear message to Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and the international human rights community that judgments like this one are hypocritical on the part of a government that claims to be “civilized.”

“How can they think we live in a civilized and secular country when they are applying sharia law on us?” he asked. “We will send a message to human rights organizations in Egypt and around the world to help us. We are angry and we want to declare it!”


Problematic Birth Certificates

Even under their father’s custody, the twins have the legal right to live with whomever they choose in two years, when they turn 15. But Ramses said he doubts the court would let them return to their mother.

“The same law that states that they should stay with mother until the age of 15 is the one that says they can decide where to live after the age of 15,” he explained. “If the court didn’t apply the first part of the law, they won’t apply the second.”

At the age of 16, when Mario and Andrew apply for their identification cards, they will face yet another hurdle, said Ramses. In 2005, Labib went to the population register and changed the twins’ birth certificates from Christian to Muslim, to reflect his own religion.

Now Ramses fears that a Sept. 23 court ruling in the case of Bahia Nagy El-Sisi, sentencing her to prison for three years for “forgery of an official document,” could be what awaits him and his little brothers. Nagy El-Sisi’s father had converted to Islam briefly in 1962, when she was 3 years old, and her documents were never altered to reflect the change as she remained a Christian. She and her sister discovered that their father had temporarily converted to Islam when the sister, Shadia Nagy, tried to issue marriage papers for her son.

Shadia Nagy was sentenced to three years in prison in 2007, also for “forgery.”

“These women are us in the future,” said Ramses.

Over the past few years, as Christians have found out about the twin boys’ case, Ramses said many have called them to give support. Many also have pledged to go on a hunger strike with the boys if they are handed over to their father.

“Christians see them as Coptic heroes and martyrs who stood up in front of all and said they were Christians and held on to it,” said Ramses. “All of them say they see the greatness of their ancestors and Christian heroes of long ago in them … and they carry a lot of respect and love for what they have done.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Effort to replace building with mosque injures 10 Christians, ruins structure.

GARISSA, Kenya, September 29 (Compass Direct News) – A longstanding effort to replace a church with a mosque in Kenya’s northern town of Garissa culminated in an attack by 50 Muslim youths this month that left the worship building in ruins.

The gang stormed the building of Redeemed Gospel Church on Sept. 14 and pelted the congregation with stones, sending many Christians fleeing while others became embroiled in fistfights. Ten Christians received hospital treatment for minor injuries and were released.

Church leaders said the Muslim mob also destroyed pews, damaged the church building’s walls of corrugated iron, smashed the glass-mounted pulpit and burned the church banner with its stand.

“We had just started the Sunday service when, without warning, a rowdy group of about 50 Muslim youths invaded the church, pelting stones at us and destroying our structures,” said the church youth chairman, identified only as Suma.

Local media reported that the 10 church members were hospitalized, but a district nurse at the hospital told Compass that no one was admitted due to the violence. A church elder at East Africa Pentecostal Church in Garissa, about 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Nairobi, confirmed that the church members were treated at the hospital and allowed to go home.

Tensions between Christians and the Muslim-majority population in the semi-desert town of 20,000 people began simmering after Muslims built a mosque next to the church plot at No. 21 Windsor in June 2007. Purchasing its land on Nov. 1, 1999, the church had begun worshipping there by early 2001, eventually growing to 400 members.

Church leaders complained to the district commissioner in June 2007 that the new mosque was built too close to the church – only three meters separate the two structures – and that it was blocking the church entryway.

“Prior to that, the owner of that land had promised to use half of it and sell the other half to the church,” the church leaders reported to the district commissioner in June 2007. “But in 2007, she changed her mind and gave it to the sheikhs to build the mosque. We reported the matter to the DC’s office that it would not go well with the church.”

Officials had ruled that no further permanent structures were to be set up on the land by either party until a later date to be determined by the district commissioner.

“The church faithfully obeyed, but the Muslims defied the orders and began immediately to put up a permanent structure,” according to the letter church leaders wrote to the district commissioner. The building of the mosque was allegedly sponsored by M.K. Roble, a wealthy Muslim in Garissa, according to the letter.

“The problems between the church and the Muslims began and have escalated since then,” it states.

Government security intelligence had reported that Muslims planned to destroy the church if it continued to operate within the residential area, District Commissioner (DC) Alois Okango told Compass. The administration had proposed a new site for the church to worship, Jamhuri Club, but two days before the attack church leaders wrote two letters to Okango saying they would remain worshipping in their building.

“We would like to notify you that our church members have decided to have our Sunday service at our usual place on September 14 and not at the new site of Jamhuri Club,” they wrote in one of the letters, “because we have come to realize that the new site is only temporary, and we will only move out of our premise if we are guaranteed a permanent place of worship.”

Okango told Compass that to avert a crisis, the administration has decided that the church should relocate temporarily to a site near an agricultural showground. The government also advised the church to sell its property near the mosque and buy another piece of land, preferably outside Garissa town center.

This suggestion, Okango told Compass, did not augur well with church members, who felt they had already established the church at the site and that it was the mosque that should be moving.

“The Christians threatened to go and worship in the ruined premises if no action was taken,” Okango said. “They said they were ready to die for the sake of their faith.”

The government is striving to avert further incidents by preventing the Christians from returning to the ruined structure, according to a Provincial Police official identified only as Chelimo. With tensions expected to rise during the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he said police were taking precautionary measures to ensure that the congregation never returned to their property.

“To allow this would be suicidal,” Chelimo told Compass. “We have deployed five security guards every day to make sure that the members of the church will not enter its structure.”


Elusive Justice

Wondering why those who attacked the church had not been arrested and charged in court, Redeemed Gospel Church pastor David Matolo said the government should punish the assailants.

“The church has the right to be protected by the government – allowing the minority Christians to suffer is quite wrong,” Pastor Matolo told Compass. “Why should the Muslims interfere with the church’s worship? I as their pastor cannot shy away when my members are ill-treated. We are ready to pay the price, but we want justice to be done.”

He said church leaders had agreed on an alternative site only to have the district commissioner suddenly revoke it.

“The DC had promised to locate us to the provincial residential area, and we had cleared the said site, only to be stopped without prior notice,” Pastor Matolo said. “Now we have no place to worship.”

A missionary from Tanzania who works in the area informed Compass that Muslims have distributed leaflets threatening to destroy all churches in Garissa. They have also threatened to burn Garissa’s open-air market operated by Christians from “down Kenya,” that is, non-Muslims, he said.

The missionary said the safety of the more than 2,000 Christians in Garissa is in jeopardy, and he appealed to the government to protect the right of worship of all people.

“It is quite unfair that the Redeemed Gospel Church has been displaced and is now praying under a tree in an open space with no amenities,” he said.

District Commissioner Okango said that the administration must protect Muslims from the noise of worship emanating from church at night that has disturbed residents, as well as prevent clashes. In both the mosque and church, loud speakers had been set up facing each other with confrontational messages blaring from each.

“The government is sensitive to the feelings of the people,” Okango said. “We cannot allow disorder to reign in North Eastern Province in the name of religious patriotism.”

Land issues alone have not been responsible for tensions in the area. The Rev. Ibrahim Kamwaro, chairman of the Pastors’ Fellowship in Garissa, said Pastor Matolo had offended Muslims when he preached to a lame Muslim man.

Muslims were said to be upset that the pastor persuaded the disabled man to stop going to the mosque and instead join his church. Pastor Matolo’s alleged promise to the disabled man of a better life offended area Muslims, Rev. Kamwaro said.

Muslims restrict churches in Garissa in various ways: Christians are not allowed conduct prayers, sing or use musical instruments in rented homes owned by Muslims. No teaching of Christian Religious Education in schools is allowed; only Islamic Religious Knowledge is taught.

Garissa has more than 15 Christian denominations, the main ones being the East Africa Pentecostal Church, the Redeemed Gospel Church, the Anglican Church, Deliverance Church, the Full Gospel Churches of Kenya, the Africa Inland Church and African Christian Churches and schools.

Report from Compass Direct News