Two Christians Slain in Attack Outside Church in Pakistan


Muslim youths kill two, wound two others after dispute over teasing of Christian women.

KARACHI, Pakistan, March 22 (CDN) — Two Christians were gunned down and two others are in a serious condition with bullet wounds after Muslim youths attacked them outside a church building in Hyderabad last night, witnesses said.

Residents of Hurr Camp, a colony of working-class Christians in Hyderabad in Sindh Province, were reportedly celebrating the 30th anniversary of their Salvation Army church when a group of Muslim youths gathered outside the building and started playing music loudly on their cell phones. They also started teasing Christian women as they arrived for the celebration, according to reports.

Christians Younis Masih, 47, Siddique Masih, 45, Jameel Masih, 22, and a 20-year-old identified as Waseem came out of the church building to stop the Muslim youths from teasing the Christian women, telling them to respect the sanctity of the church. A verbal clash ensued, after which the Muslim youths left, only to return with handguns.

Witnesses told Compass by phone that the Muslim youths opened fire on the Christians, killing Younis Masih and Jameel Masih instantly, and seriously injuring Siddique Masih and Waseem. The injured men have been transferred to a hospital in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh.

Younis Masih is survived by his wife and four children, while Jameel Masih was married only a month ago, and his sudden death has put his family into a state of shock.

“My son had gone to the church to attend the anniversary celebrations from our family…a few hours later we were told about his death,” a wailing Surraya Bibi told Compass by telephone from Hyderabad. “I got him married only a month ago. The cold-blooded murderers have destroyed my family, but our most immediate concern is Jameel’s wife, who has gone completely silent since the news was broken to her.”

She said the local police’s indifference towards the brutal incident had exacerbated the Christians’ sorrow.

“The police were acting as if it was not a big deal,” she said. “They did not register a case until late at night, when all of us blocked the main Hyderabad Expressway along with the two dead bodies for some hours.”

Jameel Masih’s paternal uncle, Anwar Masih, told Compass that police were biased against the Christians, as “none of the accused has been arrested so far, and they are roaming the area without any fear.”

He said police had taken into custody some teenagers who had no involvement in the killings.

“This has been done just to show their senior officials that they are not sitting idle,” he said.

Anwar Masih said the families had little hope for justice, because “if we have to dishonor the dead bodies by placing them on the roads to get a case registered, what should we hope for when the investigations begin?”

He said that during their protest, some leaders of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a regional political party known for its secular but often violent ideology, arrived and suggested the Christians retaliate against the Muslims.

“We told them that as Christians we are not going to take the law into our hands,” Anwar Masih said.

He said that Jameel Masih’s father, Sardar Masih, and the other Christians would visit the Baldia Colony police station Wednesday morning (March 23) to see whether there has been any progress in the investigation.

“Please pray for us,” he said.

Compass made efforts to contact Hyderabad District Police Officer Munir Ahmed Sheikh to ask about progress in the case and whether any of the named suspects have been arrested by police, but the calls were unanswered.

The killing of the two Christians comes a week after another Christian, sentenced to life imprisonment on false blasphemy charges, died in Karachi Central Prison. The family of Qamar David claims he was murdered on March 15, while conflicting reports from the jail suggest that he died of heart failure.

If David died from torture, yesterday’s killings bring the number of Christians murdered in March alone to four, the most prominent among them being Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who was assassinated in Islamabad on March 2 for opposing the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Lao Officials Arrest 11 Christians at Gunpoint


Three leaders remain in prison; Christians in three villages forced to renounce their faith.

DUBLIN, January 6 (CDN) — Following the arrest of 11 Christians at gunpoint on Tuesday (Jan. 4), three house church leaders remain behind bars for “holding a secret meeting,” according to advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).

Lao authorities today released six of the house church Christians, including two children ages 4 and 8, from Khammouan Provincial Prison, central Laos. Two other men were released yesterday (Jan. 5).

The charge against the three church leaders is a political offense punishable by law, HRWLRF said. It identified the three men only by their given names as Pastor Wanna from Nakoon village church, Chanlai from Tonglar village church and Kan from nearby Nahin village church, all in Hinboun district, Khammouan Province.

The other eight Christians initially arrested were identified as Sompon, his wife and two children, along with a man identified only as Wantorn, all from the capital, Vientiane; Bounma and Kay from Nakoon village church, and Pastor Sipan from Dongthai church in Takkek district, Khammouan Province.

Authorities first detained the 11 Christians at gunpoint on Tuesday (Jan. 4) after they gathered at Wanna’s home for delayed Christmas celebrations, according to HRWLRF.

In December, Wanna informed authorities that church members would gather at his home on Wednesday (Jan. 5) to celebrate Christmas, in line with official celebrations by the government-approved Lao Evangelical Church scheduled between Dec. 5 and Jan. 15.

A truckload of district police officers with guns cocked and ready to shoot burst into Wanna’s house after dark on Tuesday (Jan. 4) shouting, “Stop! Nobody move!” They then forcibly detained the 11 who were quietly sharing an evening meal and charged them with conducting a “secret meeting” without approval.

Police officers released two of the Christians yesterday (Jan. 5) and moved the remaining nine to Khammouan Provincial Prison. A further six, including Sompon’s wife and children, were released today, leaving only three key leaders from Khammouan house churches behind bars.

HRWLRF has called for urgent advocacy for the three, on the grounds that officials have charged them with a political offense that may lead to harsh prison terms.

 

Oppression, Re-Education, Imprisonment

Oppression in Hinboun district, Khammouan Province began in earnest after residents of three villages professed faith in Christ, according to HRWLRF.

In 2008 a handful of Christians began meeting at Wanna’s house in Nakoon village. By 2009 the number had grown to 105 people, or 25families. During that time, local officials repeatedly interrogated Wanna, threatening him with arrest and imprisonment if he did not renounce his faith and cease encouraging others to believe in God.

Wanna, however, continued to hold meetings at his home until officials arrested and imprisoned him last May. Authorities then rounded up the church members and subjected them to several days of re-education, informing them that, “We have fought the Americans for many years, and now you are being deceived and caught by their traps.”

The Christians were then forced to sign documents renouncing their faith.

After releasing Wanna in October, officials warned him to practice his faith in private and hold no further meetings at his home. Wanna ignored these warnings, and several families joined him for Sunday worship services.

In December, Wanna informed village authorities that the church would hold Christmas celebrations at his home on Jan. 5, in line with plans by the official Evangelical Church of Laos to hold Christmas celebrations between Dec. 5 and Jan. 15.

Another Christian, Chanlai (also known as Yohan), began sharing his faith in 2008 with the residents of Tonglar village, some five kilometers (nearly three miles) away from Nakoon. By 2009, a total of 15 families had professed faith and began worshiping in Chanlai’s home. Authorities arrested Chanlai along with Wanna last May, charging Chanlai with influencing residents to believe in God and holding worship meetings in his home.

Following Chanlai’s arrest, officials detained the other 14 families for a day of re-education and forced them to sign documents renouncing their faith.

In October, when Chanlai and Wanna were released, authorities warned Chanlai that he should desist from holding worship meetings or “be killed.”

Another house church was established in 2008 in nearby Nahin village, around five kilometers (nearly three miles) from Nakoon village, with 10 families or 58 Christians meeting at the home of church leader Kan.

Nahin village authorities early last year subjected the Christians to five days of re-education, announcing that, “Whoever believes in the Christian faith is caught in the trap of the enemy!” They also declared that worship meetings were considered to be “secret meetings,” a term with political connotations punishable by law.

Under great duress, five families or a total of 27 Christians in Nahin then signed documents renouncing their faith; the others refused, but they refrained from meeting together for fear of further punishment until Wanna was released last October.

Report from Compass Direct News

Murder of Governor in Pakistan Darkens ‘Blasphemy’ Case


Assassination called a blow to prospects of justice for Christian mother on death row.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 5 (CDN) — The case of Asia Noreen, the first Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges, suffered a major setback when her most vocal supporter, the governor of Punjab Province, was gunned down by one of his police bodyguards yesterday (Jan. 4) in Islamabad.

The lives of Noreen and Gov. Salman Taseer were at risk since the day he, his wife and daughter visited her in the Sheikhupura District Jail on Nov. 22, after news of her conviction appeared in the media.

Taseer had openly criticized the blasphemy statutes and vowed to try to repeal the “black laws” in parliament. He also promised Noreen (also called Asia Bibi) that he would recommend a presidential pardon for her.

The governor’s assurance and his support for Noreen gave new hope to the impoverished mother of two children and step-mother to three others – and drew violent condemnation from Islamist forces, sparking countrywide protests.

“The governor’s visit gave us hope that all was not lost,” Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan, which has pursued Noreen’s case from the onset, told Compass. “We believed that God had sent the governor to help us … his words of support boosted Noreen’s morale, and she was actually quite optimistic about the outcome of her appeal in the high court.”

He said the murder of Taseer in broad daylight had shocked all those opposing the blasphemy laws, and that “there is little hope of these laws ever being repealed.”

Johnson confirmed that Noreen’s life was at high risk ever since the governor had highlighted her case.

“The local Islamist forces believed that President [Asif Ali] Zardari would pardon Noreen on Taseer’s recommendation, and this was unacceptable to them,” said Johnson, confirming that intelligence agencies had determined that Islamists had plotted to kill Noreen inside jail to make an example of her. “Noreen was earlier allowed two hours in the morning and two in the evening to go outside her cell to relax. After the intelligence information, the jail authorities restricted her movement, and now she is kept in the cell at all times. A security guard has also been deployed with her.”

He added that news of the assassination of the governor would surely panic the Christian woman.

Johnson said Noreen’s appeal of her conviction had yet to be taken up for hearing by the Lahore High Court, but that the murder would definitely affect the course of justice. “The governor’s brutal murder has diminished our hopes for justice for Noreen,” he said.

Her family, he said, has been in hiding since Islamist parties started protests in favor of the blasphemy laws.

“Even I am keeping a low profile these days,” Johnson said.

Taseer and Noreen were declared “Wajibul Qatil” (liable to be killed) by radical Islamic clerics. A cleric in Peshawar and a local politician in Multan offered a combined sum of 50 million rupees (US$579,300) for anyone who killed Taseer and Noreen.

Protests, shut-down strikes and general uproar pressured Pakistan’s federal government to announce that the blasphemy laws would not be repealed.

Taseer, however, continued to publicly vent his opposition – even using Twitter – to the blasphemy laws, which effectively mandate death for anyone convicted of insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Although courts typically overturn convictions, and no executions have been carried out, rights activists say the laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.

On Friday (Dec. 31), Taseer had tweeted “I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”

The assassination is significant not simply because of the person targeted and the reason behind it, but because of the broader societal implications.

“[It points to] the presence of radical elements inside the Pakistani state apparatus,” said columnist Cyril Almeida.

He said that the fact that Taseer’s own bodyguard shot him is not just worrying because it indicates a failure of the vetting process but because it points to “the extent to which this poison has affected the Pakistani state. The investment in jihad has come home to roost.”

In the hours immediately following the killing, television anchors hosted several shows in which guests, while stopping short of openly supporting the murder of Taseer, did speak out in support of killing those deemed to have blasphemed. Some Pakistanis have reported that they received text messages on their mobile phones praising the assassination.

Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said the guard, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, told police that he killed Taseer because of the governor’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Qadri had escorted the governor from Rawalpindi to Islamabad on Tuesday (Jan. 4).

A 26-year-old policeman from Barakhao on the outskirts of Islamabad, Qadri had reportedly transferred to the Elite Force after commando training in 2008. Thus far, he has not been identified as a member of any violent Muslim extremist groups but is considered devout in his faith.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Report from Compass Direct News

India’s Christians Suffer Spike in Assaults in Past Decade


Hindu nationalists were often politically motivated in their attacks.

NEW DELHI, December 30 (CDN) — Christians in India faced a spike in attacks in the past decade, suffering more than 130 assaults a year since 2001, with figures far surpassing that in 2007 and 2008.

This year Christians suffered at least 149 violent attacks, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). Most of the incidents took place in just four states: two adjacent states in south India, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and two neighboring states in north-central India, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, noted EFI in its report, “Religion, Politics and Violence: A Report of the Hostility and Intimidation Faced by Christians in India in 2010.”

Of India’s 23 million Christians, 2.7 million live in the four states seen as the hub of Christian persecution. While north-central parts of the country have been tense for a decade, the escalation of attacks in southern India began last year.

This year Karnataka recorded at least 56 attacks – most of them initially reported by the Global Council of Indian Christians, which is based in the state capital, Bengaluru. Chhattisgarh witnessed 18 attacks, followed by Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh with 15 and 13 attacks respectively.

Christians are not stray incidents but are part of a systematic campaign by influential [Hindu nationalist] organizations capable of flouting law and enjoying impunity,” the EFI report said.

In 2009 there were more than 152 attacks across India, and the same four states topped the list of violent incidents, according to the EFI: 48 in Karnataka, 29 in Andhra Pradesh, 15 in Madhya Pradesh and 14 in Chhattisgarh.

Three of the four states – Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh – are ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the EFI noted that the high number of attacks on Christians in those states was no coincidence.

“While it cannot be said that the ruling party had a direct role in the attacks on Christians, its complicity cannot be ruled out either,” the report stated.

In Andhra Pradesh, ruled by centrist Indian National Congress (commonly known as the Congress Party), most attacks are believed to be led by Hindu nationalist groups.

EFI remarked that “although in 2007 and 2008 two major incidents of violence occurred in eastern Orissa state’s Kandhamal district and hit headlines in the national as well as international media, little efforts have been taken by authorities in India to tackle the root causes of communal tensions, namely divisive propaganda and activities by powerful right-wing Hindu groups, who do not represent the tolerant Hindu community.”

The violence in Kandhamal district during Christmas week of 2007 killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches, according to the All India Christian Council (AICC). These attacks were preceded by around 200 incidents of anti-Christian attacks in other parts of the country.

Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal district in August 2008, killing more than 100 people and resulting in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to the AICC.

Soon the violence spread to other states. In Karnataka, at least 28 attacks were recorded in August and September 2008, according to a report by People’s Union of Civil Liberties, “The Ugly Face of Sangh Parivar,” released in March 2009.

Before the two most violent years of 2007 and 2008, incidents of persecution of Christians had dipped to the lowest in the decade. In 2006 there were at least 130 incidents – more than two a week on average – according to the Christian Legal Association of India.

At least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005. But from 2001 to 2004, at least 200 incidents were reported each year, according to John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC.

In 1998, Christians were targeted by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS –India’s chief Hindu nationalist conglomerate and the BJP’s ideological mentor – when Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, Catholic by descent, became the president of India’s Congress Party. Gandhi, the wife of former Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, was seen as a major threat to the BJP, which had come to power for the first time at the federal level the same year. The Gandhi family has been popular since the Independence of India in 1947.

But Christian persecution – murder, beating, rape, false accusation, ostracism, and destruction of property – had begun spreading across the country in 2001, especially in tribal-inhabited states in central India. The attacks on Christians were apparently aimed at coaxing Sonia Gandhi to speak on behalf of Christians so that she could be branded as a leader of the Christian minority, as opposed to the BJP’s claimed leadership of the Hindu majority. Observers say it is therefore not surprising that Gandhi has never spoken directly against Christian persecution in India.

 

Change in Political Atmosphere

After Hindu nationalist groups were linked with bombings in late 2008, the RSS and the BJP distanced themselves from those charged with the terrorist violence. The BJP also adopted a relatively moderate ideological stand in campaigns during state and federal elections.

The BJP, mainly the national leadership, has become more moderate also because it has faced embarrassing defeats in the last two consecutive general elections, in 2004 and 2009, which it fought on a mixed plank of Hindu nationalism and development. The voters in the two elections clearly indicated that they were more interested in development than divisive issues related to identity – thanks to the process of economic liberalization which began in India in 1991.

The incidence of Christian persecution, however, remains high because not all in the BJP and the RSS leadership seem willing to “dilute” their commitment to Hindu nationalism. Especially some in the lower rungs and in the regional leadership remain hardliners.

How this ideological rift within the Hindu nationalist family will play out next year and in the coming decade is yet to be seen. There is speculation, however, that more individuals and outfits formerly connected with the RSS will part ways and form their own splinter groups.

Although politicians are increasingly realizing that religion-related conflicts are no longer politically beneficial, it is perhaps too early to expect a change on the ground. This is why none of the “anti-conversion” laws has been repealed.

Four Indian states – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh – had introduced legislation to regulate religious conversion, known as “anti-conversion” laws, before 2001, and since then three more states – Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh – brought in such laws, while two states sought to make existing laws stricter.

Anti-conversion laws are yet to be implemented, however, in Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. The anti-conversion amendment bills in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have also faced political hurdles.

Although the anti-conversion laws claim to ban conversions undertaken by force or allurement – terms that have not been defined adequately – they are commonly used to jail or otherwise harass Christians who are simply following Christ’s mandate to help the poor and make disciples. The laws also require all conversions to be reported to the authorities, failing which both convert and relevant clergy can be fined and imprisoned.

Some of these laws also require a prospective convert to obtain prior permission before conversion.

 

Concerns in 2011

Hard-line Hindu nationalists are seeking to create more fodder for communal conflicts and violence.

In April 2010, Hindu nationalists declared their plan to hold a rally of 2 million Hindus in Madhya Pradesh state’s Mandla district in February 2011, with the aim of converting Christians back to Hinduism and driving away pastors, evangelists and foreign aid workers from the district.

Several spates of violence have been linked to past rallies. India’s first large-scale, indiscriminate attack on Christians took place in Dangs district of Gujarat state in December 1998 after local Hindu nationalist groups organized such a rally. The violence led to mass destruction of property belonging to local Christians and Christian organizations.

Law and order is generally a responsibility of the states, but how the federal government and other agencies respond to the call for the rally in Madhya Pradesh may indicate what to expect in the coming months and years in India.

Report from Compass Direct News

Life on Hold for Egyptian Christian Arrested for his Faith


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

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

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

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

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

 

Searching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Arrest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrests like Thabet’s are common in Egypt.

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

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

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

 

The Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News

Anti-Christian Sentiment Heats Up


Terrorist threat in Iraq emerges at importune moment for Copts.

CAIRO, Egypt, November 22 (CDN) — As bombings and other attacks continue against Christians in Iraq, Christians in Egypt have gathered to pray and plan for their own safety.

When a group of Islamic extremists on Oct. 31 burst into Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad during evening mass and began spraying the sanctuary with gunfire, the militant organization that took responsibility said Christians in Egypt also would be targeted if its demands were not met. Taking more than 100 congregants hostage, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) called a television station and stated that the assault came in response to the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt allegedly holding two Coptic women against their will who, the ISI and some others believe, converted to Islam.

The group issued a 48-hour deadline for the release of the women, and when the deadline passed it issued a statement that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.” The statement later added ominously, “We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood.”

In the attack and rescue attempt that followed, 58 people were reportedly killed. A week and a half later, Islamic extremists killed four people in a series of coordinated attacks against Christians in Baghdad and its surrounding suburbs. The attackers launched mortar rounds and planted makeshift bombs outside Christian homes and one church. At least one attack was made against the family members of one of the victims of the original attack.

On Nov. 15, gunmen entered two Christian homes in Mosul and killed two men in the house. The next day, a Christian and his 6-year-old daughter were killed in a car bombing. At the same time, another bomb exploded outside the home of a Christian, damaging the house but leaving the residents uninjured, according to CNN.

The threats against Christians caused a flurry of activity at churches in Egypt. A 35-year-old Protestant who declined to give her name said Christians in Cairo have unified in prayer meetings about the threats. An SMS text message was sent out through prayer networks asking people to meet, she said.

“I know people are praying now,” she said. “We have times for our people to pray, so all of us are praying.”

Security has increased at churches throughout Egypt. In Cairo, where the presence of white-uniformed security police is ubiquitous, the number of uniformed and plain-clothes officers has doubled at churches. High-ranking police officers shuffle from one house of worship to another monitoring subordinates and enforcing new security rules. At times, parking on the same side of the street as a church building, or even driving by one, has been forbidden.

On Nov. 8, leaders from the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches gathered to discuss how to improve security at churches. According to the leaders of several churches, the government asked pastors to cancel unessential large-scale public meetings. Pope Shenouda III canceled a celebration to commemorate the 39th anniversary of his installment as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Guests at a recent outdoor Christmas bazaar and a subsequent festival at the All-Saints Cathedral in Zamalek
were greeted with pat-downs, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Some church leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security improvements are haphazard, while others say they are genuine efforts to ensure the safety of Christians.

Most Christians in Cairo avoided answering any questions about the attacks in Iraq or the threats made against Christians in Egypt. But Deliah el-Sowkary, a Coptic Orthodox woman in her 20s, said she hoped no attacks would happen in her country. Noting the security present at all churches, still she said she is not that worried.

“I think it’s different in Egypt than in Baghdad, it’s more safe here,” El-Sowkary said.

Almost a week after the bombings, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued a statement through the state-run MENA news agency that the Copts would be protected from attacks.

“The president affirmed his extensive solicitude for the protection of the nation’s sons, Muslims and Copts, from the forces of terrorism and extremism,” the agency stated.

 

Pressure Cooker

The security concerns came against a backdrop of heightened tensions between the Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority over the past few months, with weeks of protests against Christians in general and against Shenouda specifically. The protests, held mostly in Alexandria, ended two weeks ago.

The tension started after the wife of a Coptic priest, Camilia Zakher, disappeared in July. According to government sources and published media reports, Zakher left her home after a heated argument with her husband. But Coptic protestors, who started gathering to protest at churches after Zakher disappeared, claimed she had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.

Soon after, Egypt’s State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers found her at the home of a friend. Despite stating she had left of her own free will, authorities brought Zakher back to her husband. Since then, Zakher has been in seclusion. It is unclear where she is or if she remains there of her own free will.

Unconfirmed rumors began spreading that Zakher had converted to Islam and was being held against her will to force her to return to Christianity. Protests outside mosques after Friday prayers became weekly events. Protestors produced a photo of unknown origin of a woman in Islamic covering whom they claimed was Zakher. In response, Coptic authorities released a video in which the priest’s wife stated that she wasn’t a Muslim nor ever had been.

Another rumor began circulating that Zakher went to Al-Azhar University, one of the primary centers of Islamic learning in the world, to convert to Islam. But Al-Azhar, located in Cairo, released a statement that no such thing ever happened.

No independent media interviews of Zakher have taken place because, according to the Coptic Church, the SSI has ordered church officials not to allow public access to her. Along with their accusations about Zakher, protestors also claimed, without evidence, that a similar thing happened in 2004 to Wafa Constantine, also the wife of a Coptic Orthodox priest. Constantine was the second woman the ISI demanded the Copts “release.” Like Zakher, her location is not public knowledge.

The month after the Zakher incident, Egyptian media reported in error that the SSI had seized a ship from Israel laden with explosives headed for the son of an official of the Coptic Orthodox church. The ship was later found to be carrying fireworks, but another set of Islamic leaders, led in part by Nabih Al-Wahsh, an attorney famous for filing lawsuits designed to damage the church, declared without any evidence that Copts were allied with the Israelis and stockpiling weapons in the basements
of their churches with plans to overthrow the Muslim majority.

The claims were echoed on Al-Jazeera by Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-’Awa, the former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and in a statement issued by the Front of Religious Scholars, a group of academics affiliated with Al-Azhar University.

There was no time for tensions to cool after Al-’Awa and the others leveled their allegations. The next month, Bishop Anba Bishoy, the secretary of the Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masri Al-Yawm that Muslims were “guests” in Egypt, inflaming a Muslim population already up in arms.

“The Copts are the root of the land,” the bishop said. “We love the guests who came and settled in our land, and regard them as brothers, but they want to control even our churches? I reject anything that harms the Muslims, but as Christians we will do everything, even die as martyrs, if someone tries to harm our Christian mission.”

Around the same time, the Front of Religious Scholars called for a complete boycott of Christians in Egypt. The group called Christians “immoral,” labeled them “terrorists” and said Muslims should not patronize their businesses or even say “hello” to them.

The statement by the scholars was followed by a media leak about a lecture Bishoy was scheduled to give at a conference for Orthodox clergy. In his presentation, Bishoy planned on questioning the authorship of a verse in the Quran that calls Christians “blasphemers.” Muslims believe that an angel revealed the Quran to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, who transmitted it word-by-word to his followers. Bishoy contended there was a possibility the verse in question was added later.

The mosque protests became even more virulent, and the conference was abruptly cancelled. Bishoy was forced to issue an apology, saying he never meant to cast doubt on Islam and called Muslims “partners” with the Copts in Egypt. Shenouda also issued an apology on national television. By comparison, an Islamic publishing house that rewrote and then issued what it termed the “true Bible” caused barely a stir.

Al-’Awa then blamed the deteriorating state of Muslim-Christian relations on Shenouda and Bishoy. He accused the Coptic Orthodox Church of exploiting the government’s “weak stance” toward it and “incarcerating anyone [who] is not to its liking.”

The Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research issued a statement that declared, “Egypt is a Muslim state.” The statement further went on to read that the Christians’ rights were contingent on their acceptance of the “Islamic identity” of Egypt. The statement was endorsed by Ali Gum’a, the mufti of Egypt.

The statement also referenced an agreement made between Muhammad and a community of Egyptian Christians in the seventh century as the guiding document on how Christians should be governed in a Muslim-dominated state. If ever codified into Egyptian law as many Muslims in Egypt desire, it would legally cement the status of Christians in the country as second-class citizens.

In 639, seven years after Muhammad died, Muslim armies rode across from Syria and Palestine and invaded Egypt, then controlled by the Byzantines. At first the Muslims, then a new but well-armed minority within Egypt, treated the conquered Christians relatively well by seventh century standards. But within a generation, they began the Islamization of the country, demanding all official business be conducted in Arabic, the language of the Quran, and Coptic and Jewish residents were forced to pay special taxes and obey rules designed to reaffirm their second-class status.

In the centuries since then, the treatment of Christians in Egypt has ebbed and flowed depending on the whim of those in power. After the coup of 1952, in which a group of men known as the Free Officers’ Movement took power from a European-backed monarch, Copts have seen their treatment decline.

In 1971, then-President Anwar Sadat introduced a new constitution designating Islamic law as “a principle source of legislation” in Egypt. In 1980, the National Assembly made Islam the official religion of the state.

Estimates of the Coptic population range from 7 to 12 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people. They are accepted by some in Egypt and openly discriminated against by others. Violent attacks against Christians – which the government does little to prevent – accentuate tensions.

The state also routinely harasses converts to Christianity from Islam. Many have to live in some sort of hiding.

The Protestant woman said she was not sure whether attacks would happen in response to the threats, but whatever happens, she said she expects that Christians in Egypt will continue to endure persecution.

“According to the Bible, we know this is going to happen,” she said. “This is not new or novel for us. The Bible said that we will be persecuted. It is expected.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Pakistani Woman Appeals Death Sentence for ‘Blasphemy’


District judge bows to pressure of local Muslims, handing down stunning sentence to Christian.

LAHORE, Pakistan, November 13 (CDN) — Attorneys for a Christian mother of five sentenced to death by hanging for allegedly speaking ill of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, have filed an appeal of the verdict, they said.

Bowing to pressure from Muslim extremists in Pakistan, according to the Christian woman’s husband and rights groups, a district court judge handed down the stunning sentence to Asia Noreen on Monday (Nov. 8). Additional District and Sessions Judge Naveed Ahmed Chaudhary of Nankana Sahib district delivered the verdict under Pakistan’s controversial “blasphemy” statute, the kind of law that a resolution before the United Nations condemning “defamation of religions” would make legitimate internationally.

Noreen is the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s widely condemned law against defaming Islam.

Noreen’s lawyer, Chaudhry Tahir Shahzad, said that among other allegations, she was accused of denying that Muhammad was a prophet.

“How can we expect a Christian to affirm a Muslim belief?” Shahzad said. He added that he and lawyer Manzoor Qadir had filed an appeal against the district sessions court’s verdict in the Lahore High Court.

Asia (alternately spelled Aasya) Noreen has been languishing in isolation in jail since June of last year after she argued with fellow field workers in Ittanwali village who were trying to pressure her into renouncing Christianity. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, told Compass that the argument began after the wife of an Ittanwali elder sent her to fetch water in Nankana Sahib district, about 75 kilometers (47 miles) from Lahore in Punjab Province.

The Muslim women told Noreen that it was sacrilegious to drink water collected by a non-Muslim, he said.

“My wife only said, ‘Are we not all humans?’ when the Muslim women rebuked her for her faith,” Masih, a field laborer, told Compass by telephone. “This led to an altercation.”

Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) General Secretary Katherine Sapna told Compass that the women told Muslim cleric Muhammad Salim about the incident, and he filed a case with police on the same day, June 14, 2009.

On June 19, 2009, Masih said, the Muslim women suddenly raised a commotion, accusing Noreen of defaming Muhammad.

“Several Muslim men working in the nearby fields reached the spot and forced their way into our house, where they tortured Asia and the children,” said Masih, who confirmed that his wife is 45 years old and that they have five children – four girls and a boy, the oldest daughter 20.

Police arrived and took his wife into custody, presumably for her own protection, he said.

“They saved Asia’s life, but then later a case was registered against her under Sections 295-B and C [blaspheming the Quran and Muhammad, respectively] at the Nankana police station on the complaint of Muhammad Salim, the local imam [prayer leader] of the village,” he said. “Asia has been convicted on false charges. We have never, ever insulted the prophet Muhammad or the Quran.”

Salim reportedly claimed that Noreen confessed to speaking derogatorily of Islam’s prophet and apologized. Under immense pressure from local Muslims, according to Masih, CLAAS and Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, local judge Chaudhary ruled out the possibility that Noreen was falsely accused. In spite of repeated efforts by the Muslim women to pressure her into renouncing her faith, the judge also reportedly ruled “there were no mitigating circumstances.”

Chaudhary also fined her 100,000 rupees (US$1,150), according to CLAAS.

Ataul Saman of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) said that lower court verdicts in blasphemy cases are usually overturned by higher courts. He said lower court proceedings take place under intense pressure, with local Muslims gathering outside and chanting slogans to pressure judges. Saman added that NCJP research showed that up to 80 percent of blasphemy charges are filed against people to settle personal scores.

Rights groups have long criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as too easily used to settle grudges or oppress religious minorities, such as the more than 4 million Christians that Operation World estimates out of Pakistan’s total population of 184.7 million. To date no one has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, as most are freed on appeal after suffering for years under appalling prison conditions. Vigilantes have killed at least 10 people accused of blasphemy, rights groups estimate.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Between 1986 and August 2009, at least 974 people have been charged with defiling the Quran or insulting Muhammad, according to the NCJP. Those charged included 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 from other religions.

Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, which is active in prisons and has been following Noreen’s case from the onset, said he was impressed by her continued faith.

“A week before the verdict, I went to visit Asia in jail,” he said. “I asked her what she was expecting. She told me that Jesus would rescue her from this fake case.”

The verdict was shocking in that no one was expecting a death sentence for a woman, he said. Masih agreed.

“Asia was hoping that the judge would free her and she would come home to be with us, but this conviction has dashed our hopes for now,” Masih said.

He said that since the sentencing, authorities have not allowed him or other members of their family to visit his wife.

“We don’t know yet how she is, but we trust the Lord,” he said. “Asia is suffering for Jesus, and He will not forsake her.”

Report from Compass Direct News