Thursday May 23, 2013
Church pressured to close as elections near.
By Our Istanbul Correspondent
ISTANBUL, May 23, 2013 (Morning Star News) – Security forces arrested an Iranian pastor in Tehran after raiding his house and pressuring his church to close as a crackdown on Christians intensified ahead of June elections.
Robert Asserian was arrested Tuesday (May 21) during a prayer meeting at his Central Assemblies of God Church after authorities entered his house and confiscated his computer, books, and other belongings, according to advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
Khataza Gondwe, Africa and Middle East director for CSW, told Morning Star News that the use of the Persian language (Farsi) in sermons at the church, which includes Iranians who have converted from Islam and Judaism, makes it a particular target for the government.
“The government’s main concern or fear is that Muslim Farsi speakers may attend and convert, hence the pressure to close Farsi services,” she said.
There has been a heavy crackdown on Christianity in Iran in the past year. Analysts believe that authorities have been particularly heavy-handed in light of the upcoming presidential election.
“With the June 2013 presidential election approaching, the Iranian government will likely increase its efforts to crush any form of dissent and scapegoat religious minorities, as it has done in the past,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom notes in its annual report, released last month.
Asserian was held at an unknown location on unspecified charges.
The arrest comes after the congregation discussed on Sunday (May 19) whether the church would close. Leaders have complained of constant harassment from the Iranian Intelligence Ministry due to the church’s sermons being held in Farsi instead of the languages of Iran’s ethnic Christian minorities. Authorities have reportedly threatened church leaders with imprisonment, kidnapping and death.
In June 2012, authorities shut down a Farsi-language Assemblies of God (AoG) church in Tehran’s Janat-Abad District after it began gaining converts from Islam. The denomination is recognized by the Iranian government and has functioned openly.
A member of the AoG leadership team in Tehran for over 25 years, Asserian has had other encounters with authorities. In 2003 he was among a group of 12 Iranian AoG pastors who were arrested during a leadership conference and detained. To secure their release, the leaders were forced to make commitments to refrain from evangelizing or allowing new believers into their churches.
Since 2003, monitoring and repression of the churches has increased, and most Iranian Christians began meeting in private homes instead.
Asserian’s arrest comes days after church leaders met with Iranian security officials to discuss the release of pastor Farhad Sabokrouh, his wife Shahnaz Jazan and two other AoG members who began serving a one-year prison term earlier this month on charges of “missionary activities and anti-regime propaganda through spreading Christianity.” Their sentences, handed down in October 2012, had been suspended pending appeal. Sabokrouh is a pastor of a church in the southwestern city of Ahvaz.
Authorities told the AoG church leader that Sabokrouh and the three others would be released if Asserian’s church closed its doors, according to Farsi Christian News Network, though this has not been independently confirmed.
Asserian’s church is one of just a few left offering services in Farsi. The government has restricted their activities to prevent them from ministering to Iranian Muslims, particularly by limiting their Farsi services to Sundays; services on Friday, the day-off for most workers, had been canceled, according to CSW.
Authorities are now requiring Asserian’s church to end Sunday Farsi services, giving the ultimatum that it either conduct them in Armenian or close. It is a clearly intentional move to cripple the church, CSW Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston said in a press statement.
Iran’s constitution gives authorities wide powers to arrest converts under the guise of protecting national security. Public religious expression, persuasion, or conversion among Muslims by non-Muslims is punishable by death in Iran, according to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2012; execution is also the punishment for leaving Islam (apostasy).
“The government enforced prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing churches, and arresting Christian converts,” states the State Department report, released last week. “Authorities pressed evangelical church leaders to sign pledges that they would not evangelize Muslims or allow Muslims to attend church services. Meetings for evangelical services are restricted to Sundays. Reports suggested authorities regarded the act of allowing Muslims to visit a Christian church as proselytizing.”
Iran’s constitution vaguely states that all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and official interpretation of sharia (Islamic law), according to the report.
At the same time, Iran is a signatory to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion or belief, and the right, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Many Iranian Christians are languishing in prison, with some in life-threatening conditions due to lack of medical treatment and beatings from prison staff and other inmates.
Vahid Hakkani is serving a prison sentence in Adel-Abad prison in Shiraz, 700 kilometers (440 miles) south of Tehran. He is in critical condition due to internal bleeding, but officials have refused to transfer him to a hospital.
According to Mohabat News Agency, prison doctors say he is in urgent need of surgery but has little chance of receiving treatment since such prisoners of conscience are denied minimum care.
Hakkani is one of four Iranian Christians arrested at a house church meeting in February 2012. After more than a year of incarceration, they are still awaiting a trial date.
Meantime, international outcry continues over the arrest and eight-year sentencing of U.S.-Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini. He was released from solitary confinement earlier this month after authorities put him there in late April for a “peaceful, silent protest” with other prisoners over lack of medical care and threats against visiting family members.
Abedini was arrested September for threatening “national security,” during a humanitarian trip to Iran. He was sentenced Jan. 27 to spend his term in Evin Prison, known for its harsh conditions. More than 575,000 people have signed a petition for his release. International bodies such as the European Union and the United Nations have called on Iran to release him.
“His release from solitary is a direct result of the multitudes praying,” said his wife Naghmeh in a statement from the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents his family. “I am relieved my husband is out of solitary, but still am deeply concerned about Saeed’s health. While this is a small victory, I am still demanding justice be done and that Saeed be released.”
Tuesday May 21, 2013
Tensions high where politician who lost election strives to incite violence.
By Our Pakistan Correspondent
LAHORE, Pakistan, May 20, 2013 (Morning Star News) – A Muslim political candidate suspected of murdering a Christian has instigated calls from mosque loudspeakers for attacks on Christians, whom he blames for his May 11 election loss.
Tensions were high in Punjab Province’s Okara district after provincial assembly seat candidate Mehr Abdul Sattar, sought by police in connection with a 2008 murder, on May 13 arranged for mosque calls for violence against Christian villages.
“Burn their homes to the ground … Punish them such that they forget Gojra and Joseph Colony,” blared village mosques in the district, according to Younas Iqbal, chairman of the Anjuman-e-Mazareen Punjab, a peasant movement fighting for land rights.
Iqbal told Morning Star News by phone that that when unofficial election results were announced on May 12, Sattar’s supporters ambushed a convoy of about 100 Christians on their way to congratulate his opponent on his victory.
“They destroyed two motorcycles and threw them in the canal, besides damaging a tractor,” Iqbal said. “We went to the Okara Saddar Police Station to register a case, but the police officials refused to move against Mehr.”
Recent religious furor has been easily stoked in Pakistan. In Lahore on March 9, about 3,000 Muslims attacked Christians in Joseph Colony, destroying 175 homes, after rumors spread of an alleged remark against Islam by a Christian (see Morning Star News, March 11). In Gojra in 2009, eight Christians were burned alive, 100 houses looted and 50 homes set ablaze after a blasphemy accusation.
Sattar has targeted Christians in several villages, designated by number-letter combinations from British colonial times, particularly village 8/4-L, for voting against him, Iqbal said. Christians largely voted for Mian Yawar Zaman, also a Muslim, for a provincial assembly seat in the general election on May 11.
Iqbal said that early on May 13, Sattar’s men prevented the Christian principal of the Government Primary School, Shamoun Masih, men from entering the institution.
“They told Shamoun that since the Christians had voted against Mehr, he wouldn’t be allowed inside,” he said. “They also roughed him up, but there were no serious injuries. In 3/4-L village, Amjad Masih was harassed.”
Iqbal added that Sattar’s supporters had also forcibly occupied land of some Christians.
“The threat of violence in 8/4-L is most serious because of the tiny Christian population there,” Iqbal said of the village of roughly 600 Christians. “Sensing the gravity of the situation, we immediately informed Zaman, the legislator-elect, who pressed the police to deploy personnel in the village.”
Okara Police Chief Rao Jabbar told Morning Star News that officers would take all necessary measures to protect the Christian peasants.
“We have taken notice of the inciting speeches made by Mehr Abdul Sattar, and I have assured the Christians that we will initiate legal action against him,” Jabbar said. “Meantime, I’ve directed all police officers concerned to remain vigilant and ensure that there is no damage to life and property of the Christians.”
Police have been helpless in the face of Sattar, though, Iqbal said.
“Even though the district police chief has promised to protect the area’s Christians, the danger will always remain there,” he said. “Several cases have been registered against Mehr, but no action has been taken against him. In January this year, the police tried to arrest Mehr and his men in a murder case, but his supporters blocked three main highways for several hours, forcing the police to abandon action against him.”
Police sought Sattar in connection with the murder of Javed Masih, a Christian who had opposed Sattar in a 2008 election.
“The late Javed Masih used to tell the peasants to vote according to their conscience and not get intimidated by gangsters like Mehr,” Iqbal said. “His efforts bore fruit, and Mehr lost the general election in 2008. Unfortunately, Masih had to sacrifice his life for the cause, while several others were injured in an armed attack by Mehr’s men.”
In this month’s election, Iqbal likewise told Christians to vote for the person they thought best. Zaman belongs to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which has emerged as the single largest party in national and Punjab assemblies.
“The humiliating defeat further stoked anger in Mehr, and he’s now bent upon punishing us,” he said, adding that Sattar has targeted no Muslims for opposing him.
“Our application against Mehr Abdul Sattar is still pending with the police, but it seems more Christian blood will be shed before he is brought to justice,” Iqbal said. “But this will not deter us from using our right to vote. We refuse to give in to the tyranny of criminals like Mehr.”
Besides village 8/4-L, the threatened Christian areas in provincial constituency PP-191 are village 10/4-L, with an estimated Christian population of 3,000; 11/4-L, where 2,000 Christians live; and 26/4-L, in which around 1,000 Christians are settled.
The peasant land movement that became the issue of contention for Sattar arose more than 10 years ago in response to what Iqbal calls the Pakistan Army’s illegal occupation of 64,000 acres in some 10 districts of Punjab. Catholic Capuchins had relocated Christians to the area of central Punjab Province to provide dairy products to the British Army during World War II, and the British turned the land over to the Pakistan Army when the sub-continent was partitioned, Iqbal said.
“At the time of partition of the sub-continent, the Christians were not given the land rights which were promised to them by the Capuchin fathers,” he said. “Because of this, Christians are at the forefront of the peasants’ movement, which is facing the powerful Pakistan Army for their due right, as the Britons had handed over the lands to the Army after the partition.”
Sattar had initially worked with the peasant cause, he said.
“But then he began creating fissures in the movement, coaxing the Muslim members not to take directions from the Christian leadership,” Iqbal said. “He then left the movement and got involved in criminal activities, subsequently landing in politics. However, Mehr’s political career failed to take off because thousands of Christians of the area don’t vote for him.”
Saturday May 18, 2013
Demolitions, land grabs continue unabated on semi-autonomous island.
By Our East Africa Correspondent
ZANZIBAR, Tanzania, May 18, 2013 (Morning Star News) – Islamic extremist attacks and land grabs on this semi-autonomous island off the coast of Tanzania have continued unabated even as violence has increased on the mainland.
The May 5 bombing of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Arusha killed a 45-year-old woman, a 16-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl. Of the two Tanzanians and four foreigners arrested – now officially identified as one from Saudi Arabia and three from the United Arab Emirates – only one Tanzanian national reportedly remains in custody as a suspect.
While Islamic extremist activity has increased in Tanzania, Christians on the Zanzibar archipelago have recently suffered attacks by Islamists and the separatist group Uamsho (Re-awakening). Uamsho, the Association for Islamic Mobilization and Propagation, has issued explicit threats to Christians on Zanzibar Island since October 2012.
At midnight on April 20, Islamic extremists in Kianga, 16 kilometers (11 miles) from Zanzibar City, demolished most of the Pool of Siloam church building, a church leader said. Three suspects were arrested, only to be released after three days.
“When we tried to follow up the case, we found out that some of the information concerning the pulling down of the church was missing,” church pastor Israel Baraka Elijah told Morning Star News. “Hence, we decided to give up all together.”
Damages were estimated at $2,500, he added. Muslim extremists had attacked the church building before, setting part of it on fire on Feb. 19 and battering it with sledge hammers in November 2011.
Buildings aren’t the only targets. Suspected Islamic extremists on Feb. 17 shot and killed the Rev. Evaristus Mushi, a 56-year-old Roman Catholic priest, in the Mtoni area outside Zanzibar City. The murder came nearly two months after the Christmas Day shooting of another Catholic priest, the Rev. Ambrose Mkenda, that seriously injured him. Uamsho had left leaflets threatening to kill church leaders of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Tanzania Assemblies of God and Pentecostal Church denominations.
The Islamist group is fighting for full autonomy of the Zanzibar archipelago; it arose after Zanzibar’s primary opposition, the Civic United Front, formed a government with the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party in 2010.
How Uamsho’s separatist agenda could overlap with Islamic extremists’ objectives on the mainland remains to be seen, but the Zanzibar-based group has increased in stature by appealing to Islamist sentiments. While Tanzania’s population is 34.2 percent Muslim and 54 percent Christian, according to Operation World, the Zanzibar archipelago in the Indian Ocean about 25 miles off the Tanzanian coast is more than 97 percent Muslim.
Islamists burned several church buildings in various parts of Tanzania last October after an argument between two children about the Koran resulted in a Christian boy allegedly defiling Islam’s sacred book (see Morning Star News, Oct. 19, 2012). In Kigoma, on the western border, two church buildings were set ablaze on Oct. 14, 2012, and the roof of another one was destroyed. In Dar es Salaam, where two boys’ argument over the Koran set off the violence, three church buildings were set on fire on Oct. 12, and another was destroyed on Oct. 18.
The attacks on church buildings came after Muslims began falsely asserting that Christians had sent the Christian boy to the Muslim boy to urinate on the Koran in the Mbagala area of Dar es Salaam on Oct. 10, sources said.
On Oct. 17, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania leaders released a statement saying church buildings had also been set ablaze in Mdaula, Mto wa Mbu, Tunduru and Rufiji. The Mbagala attacks, they stated, resulted from inflammatory statements by local religious leaders.
On the island of Zanzibar, Islamist attacks have been relatively primitive, but extremists have more subtle ways of oppressing the church. When a non-Muslim organization or person buys land from a Muslim, church leaders said, Islamic extremists commonly force the sellers to return the money, claiming, “Why receive money from an infidel?”
Those who resist such pressure are persecuted, they say, and partisan government machinery does not help matters.
Anna Filipo Barihuta, a 55-year-old widow whose late husband had sold land to a church in 2007 only to have Muslim extremists destroy it in 2008, finds herself the object of Islamists’ hostility as they try to wrest the land from her.
The Pentecostal Assemblies of God Church in Chukwani, outside Zanzibar City, is still the owner of the land, but the Muslim extremists have been challenging that in court. At a hearing on the disputed land on April 28, the court postponed the case until Aug. 19, Barihuta said.
“When I returned from court,” Barihuta said, “I found a heap of human feces at the door of my house, which to me is a warning sign that I was no longer wanted in the place.”
An Islamic sheikh who asked not to be named for security reasons concurred that Muslims are pressuring her to leave the area.
“The Muslims always say I am an infidel, and that I have welcomed a big infidel,” she said. “The Muslims claim that my family forcefully entered the area and that we allowed the church to be built in an Islamic environment, but they want to put up a mosque instead of the church.”
In their bid to contest Barihuta’s late husband’s right to have sold the land to the church, the extremists have altered the name of the woman who sold it to him from Amina Zadiki to Amina Sarehe, Christian leaders said. The sons of Amina Sarehe are denying the land was sold to Barihuta’s late husband, Harun Gikaru, they said.
Since 2008, the church and the former owner have spent 10 million Tanzanian shillings (US$6,000) on legal fees, Barihuta said.
“This case has drained the family resources, such that at the moment I am not able to meet the cost of paying the school fees for my eight children, one boy and seven girls,” she said. “Four of my children are in high school.”
Barihuta added that she is behind on payments to the attorney.
“I see that if justice is not done then soon,” she said, “I will lose the whole land, including that which I sold to the church.”
In Fuoni, about six kilometers (nearly four miles) from the capital, a pastor whose name is withheld said his church has endured constant attacks.
“Every Sunday when we are worshipping, the Muslims throw stones on our church’s roof to interrupt our service,” he said. “At times, the Muslims forcefully enter into the church and switch off the sound systems, saying it is disturbing the residents.”
In Mbweni, a Church of God congregation has also suffered at the hands of extremist groups. Muslim extremists prohibited the church from worshiping on land it purchased on May 24, 2012, even after a district commissioner verified church ownership.
The extremists complained to Regional Commissioner Abdalla Mwinyi that residents did not need a church there, spurring Mwinyi to write to the church, “We have to listen to the voice of the residents. Please do not worship or construct the church, because it is a residential site.”
The stunned church protested in writing, and in July 2012 Zanzibar church leaders sent a delegation to the regional commissioner’s office to air their grievances, with Muslim leaders also present. The commissioner became furious, church leaders said.
“I am shocked at the letter that the church wrote,” Mwinyi told the group, according to the church leaders. “This is not the Tanzania mainland. I need a written apology saying, ‘We are sorry for using strong words,’ then I will allow the church to worship.”
The church complied, church leaders said, but Mwinyi still prohibited them from worshiping at the site. One Christian leader quoted Mwinyi as saying, “We only know of one religion in Zanzibar, which is Islam.”
In Kianga, Uamsho helped a gang of more than 50 people ruin a building belonging to the Church of God on April 4, 2012.
“The church was pulled down, leaving no place to worship,” said a church leader whose name is withheld. “No arrest has been made up to this point.”
The church is trying to erect a new structure.
“The sad news in Zanzibar is that all the bishops have been earmarked for assassination,” the pastor said. “It seems as if the government has no voice, yet we have a constitution which provides for freedom of religion. We need prayers. We are like people in fire. We welcome all those who are willing to help us put out this fire.”
In Maungani, some 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Zanzibar City, a Baptist Church pastor said his building was destroyed by Muslim extremists last Nov. 11. The previous Sept. 23, his children narrowly escaped death when his oldest was knifed, he said.
The local primary school unregistered their children, and the family has been forced to leave the area after receiving death threats from the Muslim community, he said.
Chipping Away at Church
On the archipelago’s island of Pemba, Muslim extremists in Wete have consistently shown hostility toward churches. Wete has only an Anglican and a Catholic church, and in 1970 the Muslim community pressured the Anglican congregation to move to a gravesite outside town.
In May 2012, several powerful Muslims encroached on that land and begun putting up structures, church leaders said. Others started cutting the barbed wire that marked the church boundary and began removing the sign of the cross on the land. The church has filed a court case, but encroachment has expanded.
The church building is in danger of collapsing due to loosening soil as buried bodies decay, church leaders said. The building has a large crack and a leaky roof.
“If nothing is done, then the church will collapse, the Muslims will take the church premise and soon there will be no church in Wete,” said a Christian whose name is withheld. “Our members are decreasing owing to sustained threats of attacks. Sometimes we are two, while other times we are 15.”
Friday May 17, 2013
By Lauren Williams, April 26th The Daily Star
BEIRUT: The abduction of two Christian bishops in Aleppo earlier this week has heightened Christian fears and deepened sectarian tensions in Syria and the region, senior Christian leaders told The Daily Star Thursday.
As The Daily Star went to press, there was still no news of the fate of Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi, the Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox archbishops of Aleppo respectively, who were kidnapped late Monday.
The two were snatched by foreign gunmen – allegedly Chechens fighting with the Islamist opposition Nusra Front – after returning from a humanitarian mission to retrieve two other kidnapped priests, according to church sources and Syrian state media.
Yazigi’s brother, Greek Orthodox Patriarch John Yazigi, was visiting Beirut from Damascus Thursday to meet with other Christian leaders amid heightened efforts to secure the bishops’ release.
But until now, their precise location and the exact identity of their captors remain shrouded in mystery.
Fearing the rise of an intolerant form of Sunni Islam, Christians, who make up 10 percent of Syria’s population of 23 million, have remained largely loyal to Syrian President Assad’s regime.
The regime, led by the secular Baath party, has in turn pitted itself as a bulwark against extremism and a protector of minorities.
Christian alignment with the regime has been reinforced by the formation of Christian civilian militias. The Popular Committees were formed to “defend’ Christian neighborhoods in Damascus and elsewhere, and recently appear to have been absorbed into the regular army and given military uniform and weapons.
Fears have also been raised by the increasing presence of the Nusra Front and a recent announcement by its leadership pledging allegiance to Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
Pointing to figures that suggest some 30,000 Christians have fled the violence and hundreds of churches been damaged, church leaders have made comparisons to the persecution of their community in Iraq during the fallout of the last decade’s bloody sectarian wars.
Antioch Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, spiritual leader of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, issued a statement in Lebanon on April 8 warning: “There is no safe place left in Syria.”
“The future of Christians in the Middle East is closely bound up with that of Syria’s Christians,” he said.
“Many Christians from Lebanon fled to Syria between 1975 and 1992 and again in 2006. Similarly, the majority of Iraq’s Christians fled to Syria, where many still are.”
Laham said the threat to Christians was caused “not by Muslims but by the current crisis, because of the chaos it causes and the infiltration of uncontrollable, fanatical, fundamentalist Islamist groups. They may be provoking attacks against Christians.”
Some Christians have attempted to remain neutral, while others have sided with the opposition, claiming the regime itself has deliberately fostered sectarian tensions and is capitalizing on minority fears to legitimize its position and shore up loyalty bases.
The Syrian National Coalition, which recently appointed George Sabra, a Christian, as its leader, placed blame for the archbishops’ capture firmly in regime hands.
Respected former coalition leader and moderate Sunni cleric, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, meanwhile, said that the kidnappers were “pouring oil on the fire.”
Meeting with a Lebanese delegation that included Christian leaders in Damascus Sunday, Assad vowed to step up a fight against Al-Qaeda.
“Syria and Lebanon have always been pioneers in promoting unity and cohesion, particularly through nationalist, pan-Arab and Nasserite parties, which contributed greatly to spreading and bolstering pan-Arab nationalist sentiments,” Assad said in statements carried by state news agency SANA.
Some Christian leaders have gone further, criticizing the church itself for failing to take a stronger stand to prevent politicizing Christians earlier on in the crisis.
Italian Reverend Father Paulo Dall’Oglio, who ran an interfaith monastery in Syria before being expelled from the country in June 2012, has been active in promoting interfaith dialogue since the outbreak of the uprising. He told The Daily Star that whoever was responsible for the kidnappings, the incident served to legitimize an oppressive regime.
“The [church’s] recognition of the right of the Syrian people to democratic change was incoherent,” he told The Daily Star Tuesday following news of the kidnap.
Whatever the origin of those fears – or the extent to which they are justified – none doubt the effect such incidents will have on the region’s Christians.
“It is difficult to know who did this or who’s agenda it is serving. ... But we do know the outcome: It’s a setback for the revolution,” Dall’Oglio said.
Laham told The Daily Star Thursday the incident was an “escalation” and would heighten fears and dampen any hopes for urgently needed dialogue. “It’s a strike against the courage of the people,” he said. “They are really afraid now, wondering if they might be next.”
Describing it as a “setback,” Laham said: “Because of this fear, we need to become even more engaged in contact and dialogue, to come together in order to build a trusting atmosphere.”
“We are all affected, not just Christians, by the situation in Syria ... but the Christians are particularly affected by these acts.”
“We are all Syrian citizens and we are all affected as citizens.
He said he feared the regional fallout, particularly in Lebanon.
“It is a very dangerous scenario, especially in Lebanon, because we are small and have such diversity,” he said. “We are very concerned.”
Friday May 17, 2013
Analyst assesses brutality following reports 2 archbishops kidnapped
By Michael Carl WND Faith, 4/27/2013
The strife caused by the civil war in Syria is affecting all people there, but an analyst for International Christian Concern fears that Christians have the most to lose.
In fact, ICC Middle East analyst Aidan Clay says Christians appear poised to lose no matter who wins in the civil war between jihadist rebels and an Islamic power structure belonging to President Bashar al-Assad.
Most recently, officials have confirmed that two Orthodox archbishops have been kidnapped, allegedly by Syrian rebels. They are Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo Boulos Yazjic and Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo Yohanna Ibrahim. They reportedly were kidnapped while on a humanitarian mission to Aleppo.
Clay said the ICC is deeply concerned about their safety. “Though people from every political, ethnic, and religious background are suffering and targeted in Syria’s civil war, Christians have found themselves in a very unique and frightening situation, having widely chosen not to take up arms or to openly support either the rebels or the regime,” Clay said. “While many Christians have publicly denounced the brutality of President Assad and by no means support the regime, most Christians see little hope in an alternative government which, they fear, will be led by Islamists who will hinder or outright abolish the religious freedoms long experienced by Christian in Syria,” Clay said.
He said the latest kidnappings refresh fears for people. “While this is not the first time church officials have been kidnapped, Archbishops Boulos Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim are the most senior church leaders abducted in Syria’s civil war to date,” Clay said. Clay says this is not the first kidnapping carried out by the Syrian rebels. “We remember the murder of Fadi Jamil Haddad, a Greek Orthodox priest, who had been killed outside of Damascus in September after trying to secure the release of a kidnapped victim,” Clay said. “Armenian priest Michel Kayyal and Greek Orthodox priest Maher Mahfouz were also kidnapped by armed rebels in February,” Clay said. “Moreover, there have been several prominent Muslim clerics who have been abducted and killed in the conflict.” Clay observes that there is a growing similarity between the civil war in Syria and the ongoing strife in Iraq. “Syria’s war is increasingly mimicking the war in Iraq where some 200 Christians were kidnapped for ransom between 2003 and 2012, according to the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization,”
Clay said. Clay adds that failure to pay ransom has a heavy price. “If the family is unable to pay ransom, the Christian is often killed,” Clay said. A Syrian-born American who identifies himself only as “Zak” to protect relatives still living in Syria says although they’re in danger, his family would rather stay in Syria than emigrate to the U.S. Zak said there are emotional and business roots that prevent Syrian Christians from leaving, including his family. “Those that have some land property when they leave, they will never see it. Land that’s been in a family for generations lost,” he said. In response to the kidnappings, a Russian Orthodox archbishop says that the state of the Christians in Syria rises to the level of a “humanitarian crisis.” In a statement for the Lebanese television network MTV, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk is asking the Syrian government to intervene.
“We call on the Syrian authorities to do everything possible so that the kidnapped bishops are returned,” Hilarion said. Clay said with the war dragging out, Syria’s Christian community will eventually follow in the footsteps of other Middle Eastern Christian enclaves. “Many fear that if the war continues without resolution, Syrian Christians will follow the path of other ancient Christian communities throughout the Middle East such as Iraq where more than half the Christian population has fled and some 900 Christians have been killed following the outbreak of war in 2003,” Clay said. “Syria appears to be following the same path.
Already, most of the Christian community has reportedly fled Homs following the city’s takeover by rebel forces. ICC stands hand-in-hand with Christians in Syria and prays for the immediate release and safekeeping of the two bishops,” Clay said. Christians have been the regular targets of the rebels since the beginning of the civil war. WND reported in December that some analysts believe the civil war is a cover for killing Christians. Although the rebels have denied involvement in the attacks on Christian neighborhoods, Open Doors believes the attacks are aimed at Christians, rather than supporters of Assad’s government. Zak adds that the Syrian Christian community holds the U. S. partly responsible for the Syrian situation. “The opinions of people there I speak to are typically directed towards us. For whatever the issue or our involvement, it’s always us at the bottom or center of it,” Zak said.
“How can America do this? Why do they let this happen? Why are they sending them (the rebels) money and weapons?”
Friday May 17, 2013
Thursday May 16, 2013
Pastor had refused to leave, saying God had called him to his people.
By Our Nigeria Correspondent
JOS, Nigeria, May 15, 2013 (Morning Star News) – Gunmen believed to be members of the Islamic extremist Boko Haram group yesterday killed the Rev. Faye Pama Musa, secretary of the Borno state chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). He was 47.
The gunmen reportedly followed the long-time Christian leader from his church building, where he was holding an evening Bible study, to his house in the Government Reservation Area in Maiduguri, and shot him dead there, said the Rev. Titus Dama Pona, chairman of CAN's Borno chapter.
“Rev. Faye Pama was killed last light,” Pona said this morning by phone from Maiduguri, the state capital. “I am right now with his family, and they are still consulting on what next to do.”
The assailants reportedly dragged the pastor from his home and shot him outside, in front of this daughter, who had followed them out pleading for his life. Pama was the father of three children.
Senior pastor of a Pentecostal church, Rhema Assembly, Pama often spoke out against persecution of Christians in Borno state, epicenter of Boko Haram attacks in northeastern Nigeria. He had been involved in ministry leadership for more than 26 years.
The shooting happened within an hour of President Goodluck Jonathan declaring a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, allowing the government to send more troops and take other special measures to try curbing violence by Boko Haram. The group has reportedly killed more than 4,000 persons since 2009, and the state of emergency comes after a gun battle between the military and Boko Haram in Baga, Borno state last month that some say took more than 100 civilian lives.
In a 2007 interview, Pama had said that he would not leave Borno state in spite of the danger to his ministry and life from Islamic extremists.
“I am an indigene of Borno state, and God has called me to work among my people,” he said. “I believe that the best people who reach a people with the gospel are those who understand the culture of these people.”
Pama believed that only by showing love to Muslims could they be won to Christ, “and not through fighting.”
An outspoken critic of the marginalization of and discrimination against Christians, Pama began preaching first with a Pentecostal ministry in Maiduguri, the Word of God Mission, in 1996, before he left to start Agape Ministries and planted Rhema Assembly. Rhema Assembly has an associate pastor and about 200 members.
He once served as secretary of Borno state’s chapter of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria.
President Jonathan had also imposed a state of emergency in 2011 on 15 areas within four states in embattled northern Nigeria, with little success. Boko Haram, which the Borno governor says threatens to take control of the state, seeks to destabilize the federal government in an effort to impose strict sharia (Islamic law) throughout Nigeria.
Boko Haram has attacked Christians particularly in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, destroying Christian-owned businesses as well as harming churches. Many Christians have fled as displaced persons or become refugees in Cameroon.
Suspected members of the Islamic extremist group also attacked a police barracks on the outskirts of Bama Town, Borno state early on Sunday (May 12), according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide. CSW reported that insurgents arrived shouting “Allahu Akbar [God is greater]” before launching explosives and fuel bombs, and the army dispersed them before lives were lost. The previous week, according to CSW, some 200 Islamic militants attacked Bama Town, killing 47 people.
Thursday May 16, 2013
Investigation continues even though school, government found no wrongdoing.
By Our Middle East Correspondent
CAIRO, Egypt, May 15, 2013 (Morning Star News) – A Coptic Christian teacher in Egypt accused of committing blasphemy and evangelizing in school was released yesterday after posting nearly $3,000 in bail.
A judge reversed a May 11 order that elementary social studies teacher Dimyana Obeid Abd Al-Nour remain in jail for 15 days after she posted bail of 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$2,864). She awaits a court hearing next week to see if she will be formally charged with a crime, rights advocates said.
Mohammed Noubi, a human rights advocate with the Luxor office of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who is working with Al-Nour’s lawyers, said Al-Nour was at home struggling under the weight of the accusations and investigation.
“The situation is really bad; she is emotionally devastated,” Noubi said.
Her court hearing is set for Tuesday (May 21), according to court documents. The prosecutor general’s office continues its investigation; if attorneys there decide to formally charge her, prosecutors could go forward with a trial the same day.
On April 10, three elementary schoolchildren at Sheikh Sultan Primary School in the village of Al-Edisat, Luxor Province, along with their parents and some teachers, complained to the school administration that Al-Nour had made blasphemous comments while teaching. Two days earlier, she taught a class about the pharaoh Amenhotep IV, later known as Akhenaten, who did away with all other Egyptian gods in favor of sun worship in ancient Egypt.
Al-Nour reportedly expressed her admiration for the former head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the late Pope Shenouda III, in class. In some versions of the alleged incident, she also made comparisons between Shenouda and Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.
When the complaint was made, a group of head teachers and parents, known as the School Council, conducted an investigation into the allegations. They found there wasn’t any reliable evidence that Al-Nour had committed any offense, according to EIPR sources.
When the students were questioned, three of them said she had said or done something wrong. The rest of the class however, 10 students in all, said Al-Nour was blameless, EIPR found. A survey of the staff at the school revealed that she was widely respected by her colleagues, according to EIPR.
The School Council’s report was turned into the provincial governor’s office and to the legal department of the local office of the national Ministry of Education, which then conducted its own study; like the School Council, it found no crime had been committed.
The case likely would have been dropped, but two attorneys representing the parents of one student went directly to the prosecutor’s office, obligating officials to conduct their own investigation. In what are known as “hisba cases,” Egyptian law allows citizens to file lawsuits against anyone who has transgressed the “exalted right of God.” Many blasphemy cases are filed in such a manner.
On Thursday (May 9), a judge ordered that Al-Nour be remanded to jail while prosecutors investigated the incident. Two days later, the judge then ordered that she be held for 15 more days, and the order was negated when the family was able to post bail.
During her imprisonment, Al-Nour went on a brief hunger strike, but her family talked her out of it, according to EIPR and Al-Nour’s attorneys. Contrary to reports by multiple media outlets, Al-Nour was never hospitalized because of the hunger strike.
Tuesday May 14, 2013
Study shows Christians disproportionately accused, sentenced.
By Our Middle East Correspondent
CAIRO, Egypt, May 13, 2013 (Morning Star News) – A judge in Egypt on Saturday (May 11) ordered 15 days of additional incarceration for a Coptic Christian teacher jailed last week on accusations of blasphemy and evangelism.
Three elementary schoolchildren and some teachers in the village of Al-Edisat, Luxor Province had complained on April 10 about social studies teacher Dimyana Obeid Abd Al-Nour, who rotates among three schools in the area. They accused her of making allegedly blasphemous comments while she was teaching on April 8 about Amenhotep IV, later known as Akhenaten, a pharaoh who introduced a form of monotheistic theology to ancient Egypt.
Accounts differ, but in some versions of the alleged incident, Al-Nour also made comparisons between the former head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the late Pope Shenouda III, and Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.
The three students from Sheikh Sultan Primary School, along with their parents and a handful of teachers, complained to the school administrator, and school officials contacted legal authorities. Al-Nour has not been charged, but on Thursday (May 9) the judge ordered her to be held in prison for four days pending the outcome of an investigation by the general prosecutor’s office.
Human rights group Amnesty International condemned the detention and demanded Al-Nour’s release in a press statement.
“It is outrageous that a teacher finds herself behind bars for teaching a class,” stated Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa program director at Amnesty International. “If she made some professional mistake or deviated from the school curriculum, an internal review should have sufficed. The authorities must release Dimyana Obeid Abd Al-Nour immediately and drop these spurious charges against her.”
The blasphemy and evangelizing accusations against Al-Nour reflect two growing trends in Egypt – disproportionate use of the nation’s blasphemy statutes against members of Egypt’s Christian minority, and blasphemy charges against people working in education, human rights officials said.
“The education system in Egypt is not based on thinking and freedom of expression, but on copying without knowing, and the absence of a forgiving culture, and refusing the other – not accepting the other,” said Ishak Ibrahim, freedom of religion and belief officer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
Ibrahim said people are targeting Christians using the nation’s blasphemy statutes as a weapon. An EIPR study to be released at the end of this month found that 41 percent of blasphemy cases taken to court from Jan. 25, 2011, to Dec. 31, 2012, were filed against Christians, who make up only about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 84.5 million people.
The total of 36 blasphemy cases involved 63 people. The country’s Sunni Muslim majority, which makes up almost 90 percent of the Egypt’s population, were charged in 59 percent of the cases.
Of the 36 blasphemy cases brought to court, only one case was filed against someone for blaspheming Christianity – in spite of a near-constant din of insults by the nation’s religious leaders against Christians and Christianity on Egypt’s television and radio airwaves. That single case, a blasphemy charge against Sheik Abu Islam for publically burning a Bible in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, was dismissed. A private Coptic attorney is trying to re-file the case.
Al-Nour, in her early 20s and in her first year as a teacher, is not alone as an educator accused of blasphemy. Ibrahim noted that approximately 30 percent of the blasphemy cases filed have been filed against someone in an education environment.
Not all those charged have been sentenced, but so far five teachers, one schoolmaster, one school secretary, one activity supervisor, three students, three university teachers and five university students have either been sentenced to prison, fired from their jobs, forced from school or forced out of their homes by the courts or decisions handed down by “reconciliation councils,” according to EIPR.
Along with the disproportionate number of Christians charged with blasphemy, sentences are harsher for Christians compared with those handed to Muslims, EIPR noted. The study notes that the sentences are also unusually harsh in relation to the nature of the offenses.
One case of biased punishment involved Makarem Diab, 50, a Christian who received six years in prison on Feb. 29, 2012 for what amounted to an argument with a Muslim coworker over religion. Diab and Abd Al Hameed worked at Deer Al Gabrawy Prep School in the town of Abnoub in Assuit Province.
While Al Hameed made the inflammatory claim during the argument that Jesus had had sex with at least 10 women, Diab countered by stating that Muhammad had more than four wives – a view commonly held by Islamic scholars, though disputes arise over whether he had more than four wives over the course of his life or at one time.
Al Hameed was not charged for his comment.
“It’s bigotry,” Ibrahim said. “One person got sentenced, and the Muslim got away with it.”
Ibrahim said he expects to see an increase in charges against Christians; the new constitution employs vague language that could prohibit evangelism, though evangelism is not specifically illegal. At the same time, the new constitution more explicitly criminalizes criticism of Islam.
“It is getting worse, with the change of the constitution, as there is a specific sentence that punishes those who insult Islam,” he said.
Tuesday May 14, 2013
Islamic extremist assault leaves 14 Christians dead.
By Our Nigeria Correspondent
MIDLU SHALMI, Nigeria, May 10, 2013 (Morning Star News) – Anti-Christian hostility drove an Islamic extremist killing spree in this village in northeastern Nigeria, though the attack was portrayed mainly as politically motivated, an area Christian leader says.
In the course of an attempt to attack the deputy governor of Adamawa state last month, gunmen from the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram killed 14 Christians, including the cousin and two nephews of the Rev. Moses Thliza, head of a Christian organization dedicated to preventing AIDS and caring for AIDS patients and orphans.
“My cousin, Bulus Buba, was dragged out at gunpoint from his house by the Boko Haram members,” Thliza told Morning Star News. “They collected his car keys, demanded money and asked him three times to renounce his Christian faith, and three times he declined to do so.”
Thliza’s two slain nephews were skilled volunteers at the organization he heads, Christian Faithful Fight AIDS in Nigeria (CFFAN), and their passing has left huge gaps in the organization, he said. CFFAN’s work centers on AIDS prevention, care of orphans and treatment of those infected with HIV and AIDS, as well as training of pastors. The organization provides services in Plateau, Gombe, Taraba, Adamawa and Borno states.
Thliza and another eyewitness, Usumam Ijarafu, said about 30 of the masked attackers – identified in local press reports as members of Boko Haram – arrived in two vans in Adamawa state’s Midlu Shalmi village, in the Madagali Local Government Area, at about 1:40 a.m. on April 7 and set upon a Church of the Brethren Church (EYN) building. Over the next three hours, they also attacked the residence of the deputy governor of Adamawa state in the village and a house where Christians were mourning at a wake.
“They also went the pastor’s house of our [EYN] church in the village, where on sensing that armed men had stormed the church, the pastor escaped, but the attackers held his wife, Shuwa Ishaya, at gunpoint,” Thliza said.
The gunmen ordered her to lead them to the house of the church treasurer, but as they approached, he too escaped from his home, Thliza said. The Islamic extremists then proceeded to the house of state Deputy Gov. Bala James Nggillari, where they killed two guards keeping watch and held a third at gunpoint.
“The attackers met three guards on duty, killed two of them by cutting their necks with knives, and then proceeded to take the third guard, Amtagu Samiyu, at gunpoint to lead them to where the keys of the deputy governor’s house is,” Thliza said. “He led them to the house of my nephew, Ezra Isanga, about a kilometer south of the village, where his wife keeps the key to the deputy governor’s house. Ezra on opening the door of his house discovered that the men wore masks, and then he shut the door and ran out through a back entrance, raising alarm that Boko Haram men were in the village.”
The members of Boko Haram, which seeks to destabilize the Nigerian government and impose sharia (Islamic law) nationwide, took Isanga’s wife, Amina Ezra, at gunpoint. They took her also to the house of the deputy governor, gaining access with the keys in her possession. The official was not at home, so they only stole some items from his house, Thliza said.
“The noise from the confusion outside attracted the attention of two brothers, Ibrahim and Samuel [Bitrus], who as I said were my nephews,” Thliza said. “Both went out to see what was happening, and they were held at gunpoint, dragged into a room and shot by the Boko Haram members.”
Boko Haram identified two other people in the village square as Christians and killed them, he added.
Christians were observing the wake two kilometers away. Thliza said assailants asked to know what was going on there, and when they learned that people were saying prayers for an elderly Christian woman who had died, they charged in and shot into the crowd.
“The attackers went there and shot indiscriminately at the worshippers, killing eight Christians – two women and six elderly men,” he said. “In all, we buried 14 Christians. Some were injured and taken to the hospital.”
Christian leaders made efforts to contact security officials during the shootings, but no help came until the following morning, he said.
“Bulus Buba’s car was taken away too by the attackers after they killed him,” Thliza said. “While the attack on our village lasted, another group of Boko Haram members went to Abuja and kidnapped the daughter of the deputy governor, who hails from our village, but she was released shortly after.”
It was the first such attack at Midlu Shalmi, a village some eight kilometers (five miles) off the Maiduguri/ Yola highway about 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Yola, the state capital. Among those killed in Midlu Shalmi, according to Thliza, were Issa Ngga, Ayuba Yuguda, Ijabani Wagai, Hiszikia Joseph, Uludili Thlimda, Zara Ijabani, Jesse Waida, Iliya Buti, Kwaji Buti, Mjigimtu Usumana, and Mara Ijigil.
Neighboring villages were attacked prior to the Midlu Shalmi assault, Thliza said.
“The other villages attacked earlier include Madagali, 12 miles from my village, and Gulak, nine miles away, on two different occasions,” he said.
Besides the EYN church, Midlu Shalmi village is also home to Deeper Life Bible Church and Roman Catholic charismatic congregations.
“Political motive has been read into this attack, but this is not true because all the victims are not politicians,” Thliza said.
The deadly assault was one of the latest religiously motivated attacks by Boko Haram. The group has stated that the sole purpose of its campaign of violence is to establish an “Islamic state like during the time of Prophet Muhammad,” though the U.S. Department of State continues to insist that the group is motivated by poverty and marginalization.
In its annual report released last month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) notes, “The U.S. government consistently has urged the Nigerian government to expand its strategy against Boko Haram from solely a military solution to addressing problems of economic and political marginalization in the north, arguing that Boko Haram’s motivations are not religious but socio-economic.”
Advocacy group Jubilee Campaign, in an April 29 report on the State Department’s most recent country report on Nigeria, objected to the government’s position.
“The claim that the Muslims of northern Nigeria have been marginalized politically and economically by the federal government and responded to ‘legitimate grievances’ with violence is not credible,” the Jubilee Campaign report states. “This has been used to give unconscionable and undeserved legitimacy to violence committed against Christians in northern Nigeria, whether by terrorist actors such as Boko Haram or others.”
Jubilee Campaign states that Boko Haram has used religion as its primary recruiting tool, and that statements by the Islamic extremist group’s leaders reveal their motive for violence is “unambiguously waging Jihad.”
“No reference is made in the DOS [Department of State] report to their declared motive,” the Jubilee Campaign report states.
Thliza said the government of Nigeria must do more to stop Boko Haram.
“The truth is that Boko Haram is waging a Jihad, a religious war against Christians and the government, with the intention of establishing an Islamic state,” he said. “No government should allow a group of people to forcefully take over the governance of the people.”
Christians make up 51.3 percent of Nigeria’s population of 158.2 million and live mainly in the south, while Muslims account for 45 percent and reside primarily in the north, according to Operation World.
While Christians have shown great restraint in the face of attacks by Boko Haram and other Islamic extremists, the government must see Boko Haram violence as problem that requires bold confrontation, he said.
“As Christians, our prayers have always been that God should touch the heart of terrorists, that they will repent, and that their evil plans against Christians will be revealed,” he said.
Thliza’s slain nephews, 39-year-old Ibrahim Bitrus and 29-year-old Samuel Bitrus, were the sons of his younger brother Bitrus Kutiji Thliza.
“The murder of Ibrahim by the terrorists is devastating to us, because he has died leaving behind and aged mother and three kids – one of them was just born in January,” he said. “His death is no doubt devastating to our ministry and family.”
Ibrahim Bitrus was an information technology expert and program manager in three states for the ministry.
“Ibrahim, whether or not we have money, was prepared to work,” Thliza said. “He worked hard back home teaching at the Government Secondary School and at the same time serving the ministry. So, his death has impacted heavily on our ministry.”
The elder nephew, born in Thliza’s house while his father was serving in the military, had been trained at the ECWA Information and Computer Science Institute in Jos through Thliza’s sponsorship.
“Nobody has the training and capability of Ibrahim – even though he was not a health care worker, he had acquired enough experience in serving the ministry, which enabled him to do extremely well,” he said. “I relied on him without doubt to handle any project.”
Besides heading the program office in Madagali, Ibrahim Bitrus handled AIDS projects in Taraba and Gombe states, he added.
“We are praying that God will raise someone to replace him, but his death is indeed a great loss to us,” Thliza said.
Samuel Bitrus worked as an accountant and information technology expert as a volunteer, he said.
“This is a health care project, work that requires specialized training,” Thliza said. “More so, this is a faith-based organization. So we need people who share in the vision and who will work sacrificially in obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ.”