News from the Frontlines

Monday April 14, 2014

Christians Killed in Egypt Reflect Growing Hatred in Segments of Society

Coptic teacher in Minya Province, woman in Cairo latest victims of vitriol.

By Our Middle East Correspondent

ISTANBUL, Turkey, April 12, 2014 (Morning Star News) – A Coptic Christian teacher in Egypt allegedly shot by the teenage brother of one of his students has died, human rights activists said yesterday.

Ashraf Alahm Atef Hanna, an English teacher at Marzouk Prep School in the village of Marzouk in Minya Province, succumbed to injuries from the shooting on Tuesday (April 8). He was 35.

 

In what some activists said was a sign of both endemic disrespect toward educators and the vitriol of some segments of Egyptian society toward Christians, Hanna was shot in the head on April 1 by the 16-year-old Muslim brother of one of his students. According to human rights activists and local media sources, the teacher caught one of his students smoking in class. When the teacher told the boy to stop smoking, the Muslim student cursed at the teacher and insulted him in front of class.

 

The teacher responded by striking the student, allowed under school guidelines, and the boy stormed out of the class in anger.

 

The student later returned to the school with his family, which area residents said has ties to local Islamic extremist groups. The group chased the teacher through the school, and after catching him, they beat him and shot him once in the head. He was taken immediately to a hospital, where he lay near death for a week.

 

Authorities arrested at least four members of the family, including Mohamed Naser Mustafa, the one alleged to have shot Hanna.

 

Mina Thabet, spokesman and founding member of The Maspero Youth Union, said that the near constant din of anti-Christian vitriol from Islamists that creates and reinforces hate toward the Copts is to blame for the killing.

 

“They have an ideology about creating the ‘other,’” he said. “That’s the problem. They hate everyone different from them. The hate speech is responsible for the majority of sectarian violence and the majority of killings in Egypt.”

 

The most recent killing comes during a recent spate of seemingly random attacks against Copts in Egypt, including the shooting death of a 25-year-old Coptic woman, Mary Sameh George.

 

On March 28, in the Ain Shams section of Cairo, George was shot while on her way to take money to three people she knew from a ministry in which she was involved.

 

Contrary to multiple reports, George was not stabbed or strangled but had been shot in the chest at least once through the windshield of her car, according to her father, Sameh George. He examined her body and said there were no signs of stabbing or strangling.

 

She was driving near the Church of the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Michael in Ain Shams, where supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were rioting. According to George, the mob spotted a cross in her car and a pair of cross earrings she was wearing and, along with the fact that she wasn’t wearing a veil, they discerned that she was a Christian.

 

The mob pulled her out of her car after she was dead or close to dying, he determined, and then set the vehicle on fire. They left her corpse in the street.

 

Eyewitness reports of George being stabbed and/or strangled were likely rooted in the chaotic scene and the fact that in the same general area on the same day she was shot, a female journalist and three other Muslims were killed.

 

No charges have been filed in the killings, and no confirmation of arrests has been released by the government.

 

George was a law school graduate who was working at a small private company. Her father said that, contrary to media reports, she was not engaged. She had recently told her father that she had no desire to get married because she wanted to dedicate all of her energy to serving God and helping Cairo’s many poor.

 

“She told me, ‘What good are other people getting out of it?’” Sameh George said. “She said she preferred to work with ministries.”

 

George said he was devastated by the killing and that his wife is utterly shattered. She is unable to speak to anyone about the loss of her daughter. Still, he said, his daughter’s death has taught a valuable if bitter lesson.

 

“From what happened to my daughter we learned that we have to be ready,” he said. “We all have to wake up. There is no guarantee when someone is going to die. So we have to start getting prepared now…That’s the thing that we all woke up to.”

 

On the day Hanna died, several gunmen opened fire on a Coptic-owned electric supply store in the Al-Matariyyah area of Cairo. Although unrelated to the shooting, the attack was widely believed to be part of an effort to incite attacks on Copts in southern Cairo. Two brothers suffered serious injuries, but despite their shop being gutted by bullet fire, they were not killed. No arrests were made in the killing.

 

On Monday (April 7) a Muslim tried to set fire to the Virgin Mary Church in Mansheet Nasr, on the outskirts of Cairo, by pouring gasoline on the one of the church buildings. Copts at the building turned him away, but he returned later with an unspecified weapon. Thabet of the Maspero group said three people were seriously injured and needed hospitalization.

 

News from the Frontlines

Friday April 11, 2014

Two Pastors in Bhutan Jailed without Charges

Interior minister cites 'proselytizing,' but police find no evidence.

By Our Bhutan Correspondent

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 10, 2014 (Morning Star News) – Two pastors in southern Bhutan have spent more than a month in jail without being formally charged.

Police arrested M.B. Thapa (aka Lobzang) and Tandin Wangyal in Khapdani village in Samtse District on March 5. Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs Damcho Dorji said at a recent press conference that the two pastors were trying to coercively “proselytize” and had not obtained permission to hold a public gathering, though area Police Officer in Charge Pema Wangdi reportedly ruled out a proselytizing charge.

 

Wangdi told Business Bhutan that police had eliminated the possibility of charges of coercive proselytizing after questioning the two pastors and 30 Christians.

 

“We found no evidences to show they were [forcibly] converting,”Wangdi said, adding that the only basis for their arrest was alleged failure to procure prior approval to conduct a gathering in the village.

 

The two pastors, who are still awaiting formal charges from the Office of the Attorney General, spoke at a March 4 ground-breaking ceremony for construction of a new house at the invitation of another Christian. The next day they were arrested.

 

“The constitution gives the freedom to practice your own religion but bars anybody from forcefully converting others,” Minister Dorji said at the press conference. “On the other hand, they had not obtained permission from local authorities. This is a crime under the penal code amendment, so if you have violated this provision, it does not matter whether you are Buddhist, Hindu or Christian, then the law will take its own course.”

 

The family of Pastor Wangyal has appealed to the office of Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay to ensure that the case is not delayed any longer, members said.

 

“We don’t have a clue why they are taking too long,” the pastor’s wife, a mother of three, told Morning Star News.

 

Sources told Morning Star News that the attorney general’s office is still investigating the case.

 

“I don’t know why the investigation is taking so long when police OC [Wangdi] personally told me they had done the investigation and submitted the report,” a relative of Pastor Thapa said. “Why is the OAG taking so much time to file a charge sheet?”

 

Bhutan, a Bhuddist-majority nation of over 700,000 people, transitioned to a constitutional democratic monarchy after a century of absolute monarchy in 2008. Its constitution provides for religious freedom, with Section 4, Article 7 stating that citizens shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It adds that no person “shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

 

The country’s estimated 19,000 Christians are not legally recognized, while only Buddhists and Hindus can register their associations to become legal entities. Christians, therefore, confine themselves to closed-door house churches.

 

Christianity is generally seen as a Western faith, and those who convert to Christianity are viewed with suspicion. Officials at times show hostility towards Christians. On July 31, 2012, a sub-divisional officer, Pema Wangda, in Gelephu town in southern Bhutan, reportedly beat pastor Pema Sherpa. The officer reportedly threatened to kill the pastor after he refused to temporarily halt his church’s worship services.

 

Bhutan seeks to preserve and promote the state-endorsed religion of Mahayana Buddhism and its distinct culture through its policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which measures the nation’s progress in terms of the well-being of its people and has earned Bhutan a global reputation.

 

While Christians wonder if GNH is inclusive of minorities, a relative of one of the jailed pastors remained hopeful.

 

“We have faith in the justice system of our country, and we will approach the highest authorities if they are not released sooner,” the relative told Morning Star News.

 

News from the Frontlines

Wednesday April 9, 2014

Syrian Christians Mourn Murdered Priest

Dutch clergyman refused to leave embattled country's people in spite of dangers.

By Our Middle East Correspondent

ISTANBUL, Turkey, April 8, 2014 (Morning Star News) – Christians across Syria are mourning the loss of a Dutch priest who, despite grave personal danger, refused to leave the civilian population stranded in Homs.

The Rev. Frans Van der Lugt, 75, a Jesuit priest, was killed Monday morning (April 7) in Homs, according to the Jesuit Curia of the Provinces of the Near East and the Maghreb. According to the Order, Van der Lugt, a Dutch national, was taken outside a monastery building by an armed man, beaten and then executed. The priest had lived in Syria for about 50 years.

 

Stephen Carter, advocacy officer for Syria for Middle East Concern, called the killing “senselessness.” Because of Van der Lugt’s lifelong commitment to the Syrian people and his refusal to leave Homs despite great personal danger, the priest was well known and loved, Carter said.

 

“A man of peace, Father Frans was unwavering and forthright in his commitment to and identification with the people of Syria,” Carter told Morning Star News. “His community mourns; warring factions blame each another for his murder. There seems to be no meaning – and in this, his death is no different than the thousands of others.”

 

Parts of Homs are held by either rebel-held forces or Islamic militant groups and have been under siege from government forces for about two years. Since the Syrian Civil War started in April 2011, Homs has been on the frontlines of the battle between  government and rebel forces.

 

Eventually, with the arrival of hard-core Islamic militants bent on establishing an Islamic state in Syria, parts of the country descended into a free-for-all, with ever-shifting alliances and leaders who seemed to fight against each other almost as much as they fought against the national army. Homs was also caught up in this struggle, with reports of anti-Christian atrocities in or around Homs, leaking to the outside.

 

Van der Lugt released several letters and videos to the public outlining the effects of the siege on the civilian population, both Christian and Muslim, of Homs. The siege and continued shelling in the city had forced out most of the civilian population, but according to Van Der Lugt, it practically wiped out the Christian community, reducing it from a population of 60,000 to just 66, he said in letters before he was killed.

 

Carter said the priest’s death presents a challenge.

 

“It is hard to discern optimism that Father Frans’ death might serve as a catalyst for renewed endeavor towards reconciliation and peace,” he said. “And yet that is the challenge that his murder presents – a challenge not just for combatants, envoys and interlocutors, but also for the interceding Church worldwide as we join with Syrian Christians in a day of prayer on the 11th of April.”

 

Selwanos Boutrous Alnemeh, the Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Homs and a friend of Van der Lugt, said the priest was killed by a “deceitful hand.” Writing on Facebook, he said Van der Lugt was a “new saint” in heaven and thanked God for the example the priest set while he was on earth.

 

“You were a model for us all. You were a support and a refuge,” Alnemeh wrote. “We love you, will remember you and will go forward with your memory.”

 

News from the Frontlines

Tuesday April 8, 2014

Convert from Islam in Uganda, Former Sheikh, Says Muslim Relatives Poisoned Him

Doctors provide antidote for substance used in insecticide; more treatment sought.

By Our East Africa Correspondent

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 8, 2014 (Morning Star News) – Muslim relatives of a convert from Islam in a village in eastern Uganda last week tried to poison him to death, the Christian told Morning Star News.

Hassan Muwanguzi, who lost his wife and job as a schoolteacher shortly after his conversion in 2003, was hospitalized on March 31 in Mbale after an aunt who called a family gathering in Kadimukoli village, Budaka District, put insecticide in his tea, he said.

 

“After eating and taking tea, I started feeling stomachache, then I realized that she was the one responsible for it – and I believe she did not do it alone, since they have been hunting for me directly and indirectly, because when I left them and converted to Christianity it pained them so much,” Muwanguzi said in an email. “The reason they want to kill me is very clear – it is because of being a convert to Christianity; above all, to them it is like I brought shame by converting, as a [former] sheik. But to God the Almighty Father, this was His plan for me to expand His Kingdom.”

 

A physician who treated him, identified only as Dr. Rashid, told Morning Star News that the substance Muwanguzi ingested was possibly diazinon, an organic acid used in insecticides, as the Christian’s condition slightly improved under atropine, the antidote for diazinon.

 

“When Hassan Muwanguzi was brought in to our clinic, he was not able to take in food, including liquids, as he had vomiting with abdominal cramps,” Dr. Rashid said. “He had to be given [intravenous] drips. He looked confused with slurred speech. His vision was getting very poor, and he could not even recognize the friend who brought him in.”

 

Doctors immediately suspected diazinon or other organophosphates used for pest control, he said.

 

“We had to treat him with atropine drugs, which led to his improvement,” Dr. Rashid said.

 

The doctor recommended a more specialized diagnosis at a larger hospital in Kampala, but Muwanguzi, who left the hospital on Monday night (April 7), said he cannot afford it.

 

“We left yesterday in the evening hours due to lack of funds for treatment,” Muwanguzi said. “I appeal to all brothers and sisters in the Lord to help me and send us some funds so I can I pay the medical bills and also to finish the treatment, because if I fail to continue and finish the treatment, then I may die and my family will perish.”

 

A pastor close to Muwanguzi concurred that he needed further treatment.

 

“He needs to be taken to Mulago National Referral Hospital in Kampala for more diagnosis to ascertain the extent of the poison in his blood,” said Bishop James Kinyewa.

 

According to Wikipedia, extended treatment for human ingestion of diazinon is often needed to reverse potential harm, as toxicity may persist for weeks, months or more.

 

Muwanguzi was invited to a special meeting to discuss family matters at the home of the aunt he accuses of poisoning him, Maimuna Time; she had mentioned the family needed special prayers for a daughter who was ill, Muwanguzi said.

 

The meeting was scheduled to start at 5 p.m. but was delayed until about 7 p.m., when three other relatives arrived. At 7:30 p.m. tea was served with bread. Immediately after taking the food, Muwanguzi began feeling slight pains that gradually increased, and he realized he could have been poisoned, he said.

 

He telephoned Bishop Kinyewa, who advised him that he should leave secretly, as he planned to get a motorcycle to take him to the hospital.

 

“I knew if he were to mention to them that he was getting sick, they would harm him more,” Bishop Kinyewa said.

 

At around 8 p.m. Muwanguzi was rushed to Doko Medical Center in Mbale, he said.

 

Pastor Patrick Stuma of the Church of Uganda, Mbale, agreed that Muwanguzi needed further medical care.

 

“We have managed to raise 1.3 million Uganda shillings ($500 dollars) to cover medical expenses for Muwanguzi, but we need more money to take him to Kampala for more specialized treatment,” Stuma told Morning Star News.

 

Muwanguzi’s aunt, Time, denied poisoning him.

 

“He left my house without informing us,” she told Morning Star News by phone. “It was after three days that a neighbor informed us that he is sick and admitted in the hospital.”

 

House Burned Down

Following his conversion in his early 20s in 2003, Muwanguzi’s family immediately kicked him out of their home, and enraged Muslims beat him, he said. His wife left him that same year, and he lost his job as a teacher at Nankodo Islamic School, near Pallisa.

 

Even so, he opened a Christian school, Grace International Nursery and Primary School, at Kajoko, Kibuku District, 27 kilometers (16 miles) from Mbale; the area’s population of 5,000 people is predominantly Muslim.

 

Incensed by his boldness, an Islamic teacher, sheikh Hassan Abdalla, in 2011 filed a false charge that Muwanguzi had “defiled” his daughter, a minor. Together with his Muslim countrymen, Abdalla filed a case at the chief magistrate’s court in Palissa-Kalaki, and a warrant for Muwanguzi’s arrest was issued on April 1, 2011.

 

Muwanguzi was arrested and released on bail after nearly a month. He said the Muslims filed the false charges because he had opened the Christian school against the wishes of the Muslim majority. More than a quarter of the school’s 235 children came from Muslim homes, with the consent of their Muslim parents, he said.

 

Area Muslims resorted to witchcraft to try to get him to close down the school, and when that didn't work, they tried to discourage parents from bringing their children to the school, accusing it of converting Muslim children to Christianity by teaching Christian Religious Education, he said.

 

When his accuser failed to appear in court on multiple occasions, the judge finally found the accusations were false and dropped the case in May 2012, he said.

 

A few weeks after he was acquitted, the owner of the land denied having sold it to Muwanguzi, and he received a court order to close down the school. In June 2012, his house was burned down.

 

“During that time I and my family escaped from the house by grace, but if it had not been so, then by now we would be no more,” he said. “This attack was mobilized by Muslim sheikhs, imams and family members after hearing that I had converted to Christianity after studying and completing university with a degree in Islamic law.”

 

Uganda’s constitution and other laws provide for religious freedom, including the right to propagate one’s faith and convert from one faith to another.

 

Muwanguzi has two children from his previous marriage, and two other children from remarriage. He has considered leaving the area before, and this latest attack by family members has increased the urgency, he said.

 

“We live in the same district [as family members], but since I am popular in the whole eastern region of Uganda, which covers almost 14 districts, it is easy for them to get me, but I have been living by grace,” he said. “I need to leave this area, but I don’t have anywhere to go or the person to lead me out. This is the reason why we are suffering a lot.”

 

News from the Frontlines

Monday April 7, 2014

Christian Couple in Pakistan Sentenced to Death for 'Blasphemy'

Sentence comes eight days after another Christian handed death penalty.

By Our Pakistan Correspondent

LAHORE, Pakistan, April 4, 2014 – (Morning Star News) – A Christian couple in Punjab Province incapable of writing proper Urdu was sentenced to death today for allegedly sending blasphemous text messages, bringing the number of Christians on death row in Pakistan to four.

In a country reeling from increasing religious intolerance, the death knell for Shafqat Emmanuel and Shugufta Emmanuel sounded eight days after a court in Lahore sentenced another Christian, Sawan Masih, to death for allegedly insulting Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, during a drunken conversation with a Muslim friend. That made Masih the second Christian in Pakistan now on death row after a judge sentenced Christian mother Asia Bibi to death for alleged blasphemy in November 2010.

 

A court in Toba Tek Singh heard the case against Shafqat Emmanuel, 43, and his wife, a cleaner at a local missionary school and mother to four young children. They were accused of sending blasphemous text messages on June 18, 2013, to complainants Muhammad Hussain and Gojra Tehsil Bar Association President Anwar Mansoor Goraya from a number allegedly registered in Shagufta’s name.

 

The Gojra City Police in Punjab charged them with blasphemy under Sections 295-B (insulting the Koran, punishable by life imprisonment), 295-C (insulting Muhammad, punishable by death) and 25-D of The Telegraph Act of 1985. Section 25-D recommends a maximum of three years for intentionally “causing annoyance.”

 

The couple’s lawyer, Nadeem Hassan, said the judge had succumbed to Islamists’ pressure and handed down the death sentence even though there was no concrete evidence against the couple.

 

“Toba Tek Singh Additional Sessions Judge Mian Amir Habib was clearly intimidated by advocate Touqir Ashraf and some other Islamist lawyers from Lahore who were representing the complainants,” Hassan said. “These men kept pressuring the judge during the entire trial, which was conducted in prison due to fears for the couple’s security. Even on Friday [March 28], the complainants’ lawyers kept proclaiming Koranic references calling for death to blasphemers.”

 

Prosecuting attorneys told the court they were “determined to become Ghazi Ilamdin Shaheed and Mumtaz Qadri if the judge did not convict the accused,” Hassan told Morning Star News in Lahore. Ilamdin Shaheed is revered as a hero by Muslims for killing a Hindu publisher, Mahasay Rajpal, who in 1924 published a book considered blasphemous against Muhammad. Qadri was a police guard who gunned down a top government official, Salman Taseer, because of his outspoken views on the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. Qadri has been sentenced to death but has challenged his conviction.

 

“The police failed to recover the SIM [Subscriber Identity Module] allegedly registered in Shagufta’s name from the couple’s possession,” Hassan said. “The police just produced a receipt of a cellular company on which Shagufta’s national identity card number was written against the number.”

 

He added that police had earlier claimed that complainant Hussain’s call data had revealed that the messages had been sent from Shagufta’s cell phone number. Hassan said that during the trial, he kept demanding that the prosecution present the call data record in court, which they failed to do.

 

“During preliminary investigations, Shagufta had told the police that her cell phone had been lost for a month, and that she did not know who might have sent the alleged messages,” he said. “Nevertheless, the Gojra City Police detained the couple, along with their four minor children, and pressured them to name someone who could have sent the messages.”

 

Hassan said that in order to appease mobs led by Islamist clerics, police forced Shafqat Emmanuel, who is confined to a wheelchair due to a spinal injury, to confess that he had sent the blasphemous messages.

 

“The police tortured Shafqat to confess before a judicial magistrate, but the crippled man retracted his statement when we requested the session judge to record his statement again,” he said.

 

Shafqat’s backbone was fractured in an accident in 2004. Since then he has been paralyzed in the lower body. Since his accident, Shagufta has been the only breadwinner for the family’s four children, Ambrose, 13, Danish, 10, Sarah, 7, and Amir, 5.

 

Hassan said he would challenge the verdict in High Court once he receives a copy of the detailed verdict.

 

Biased Court

Farrukh Harrison of the Christian advocacy group World Vision in Progress told Morning Star News that his group had been protesting against the “court’s biased attitude” from the trial’s outset.

 

“Judge Habib simply refused to accept our submissions regarding insufficient evidence presented by the prosecution,” Harrison said. “We also moved the High Court in this regard, but our petition was referred back with a direction to the trial court to expedite the matter.”

 

Harrison lamented the fact that the judge had given death sentence to both the husband and wife even though they had forced a confession from her husband.

 

“Why was Shagufta given death sentence when the police claims that her husband had committed the act?” he said. “Isn’t this travesty of justice that a poor couple has been convicted for a motiveless crime?”

 

Harrison said the court also should have noted that in most cases of blasphemy, the accused are from poor background.

 

“The question is what could have been this couple’s motive for committing this crime in the first place,” he said. “They are uneducated, poor people whose entire life is limited to their hometown only.”

 

The activist further said that their lawyer had told the court that the couple couldn’t possibly have written the alleged texts written in Roman Urdu when they couldn’t even read or write Urdu properly.

 

“It’s only a matter of time when two other Christians accused of blasphemy [Pastor Adnan Masih, aka Adnan Prince, and Asif Pervaiz] would also be given the death sentence,” he said. “It’s a pity that all these people will have to suffer for years in prison until the High Court judges their cases on merit.”

 

At least three other cases have been registered previously against Christians based on blasphemous text messages.

 

In May 2006, Qamar David was accused of sending blasphemous text messages to various Islamic clerics in Karachi. He was convicted in February 2010 and died in prison on March 15, 2011.

 

In January 2009, Hector Aleem and Basharat Khokhar were accused of sending text messages that hurt Muslims’ religious sentiment. They were acquitted of the charge on May 31, 2011.

 

Ryan Stanton, then 16, was charged with sending blasphemous text messages in Karachi on Oct. 10, 2012. He has fled the country after the family’s home was ransacked by a violent Muslim mob.

 

At least two Muslims, Abdul Sattar and Irfan Rafique, have also been charged with sending text messages.

 

Rights groups have said that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often misused to persecute minorities and to settle personal scores.

 

In a recent report, Amnesty International said the vague formulation of the blasphemy laws, along with inadequate investigation by authorities and intimidation by mobs and some religious groups, has promoted vigilantism across Pakistan, especially in Punjab Province.

 

Although Pakistani courts have ordered death sentences on a variety of charges, thousands of inmates have been parked on death row since a government moratorium on executions began in 2008. But since the election last year of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has publicly supported capital punishment, analysts have speculated that the government might move to hold executions.

 

Sawan Masih was sentenced by Lahore Additional District and Sessions Judge Chaudhry Ghulam Murtaza on March 27. The street sweeper was also fined 200,000 rupees (US$2,027). Accusations against Masih sparked the destruction of 180 Christian-owned homes and shops in Lahore’s Joseph Colony in March 2013; an anti-terrorism court freed the 133 Muslim suspects in spite of strong video evidence against them.

News from the Frontlines

Wednesday April 2, 2014

Christian Prisoner in Iran Protests Harsh Treatment with Hunger Strike

Convert from Islam, others imprisoned for practicing their faith.

By Our Middle East Correspondent

ISTANBUL, Turkey April 2, 2014 (Morning Star News) – A convert from Islam in Iran sentenced to serve almost four years in prison for Christian activities has gone on a hunger strike to protest the government’s refusal to grant his request for release, religious freedom advocates said.

Vahid Hakkani began his hunger strike on March 20 after authorities denied him the conditional release that inmates are eligible to obtain after completing half their prison terms.

 

A researcher and advocate for Middle East Concern said that the willingness of Hakkani to possibly starve himself to death is a reflection of the conditions religious prisoners in Iran face.

 

“Sadly, the harsh conditions that have led Vahid to stage this hunger strike are conditions that many other prisoners of conscience are experiencing: a harsh conviction and sentence following an unjust trial, the refusal to grant release on bail, inadequate provision of medical care, and a dangerous and overcrowded prison environment,” the researcher told Morning Star News. “The hunger strike demonstrates the level of Vahid’s desperation, and the timing [coinciding with the Nowruz Iranian New Year celebrations] is poignant.”

 

Authorities arrested Hakkani on Feb. 8, 2012, along with several others at a house-church meeting, and charged him with numerous criminal offenses related to his faith. Hakkani was tried with three others over the course of two court hearings, one on Oct. 15, 2012 and another on Dec. 28, 2012. In June 2013, the Shiraz Revolutionary Court issued a verdict, finding all four guilty on charges of attending a house church, spreading Christianity, having contact with foreign ministries, propaganda against the regime and disrupting national security, according to advocacy groups.

 

Hakkani is still recovering from treatment of serious health problems, which his hunger strike could worsen. In November 2013, authorities granted him leave for two months for surgical treatment of intestinal hemorrhoids so severe that he was losing up to one-third of a liter of blood daily because of internal bleeding. Two weeks into his hunger strike, his condition was already starting to worsen, according to Mohabat News.

 

Fighting House Churches

Iranian officials continued their attempts to harass the Alborz Province house-church movement in March. Officials of the Central Prison in Karaj on March 5 searched the cell of Behnam Irani, leader of a house-church movement in Karaj. They seized his Bible, Christian books and other literature in his cell, according to human rights activists.

 

On the same day, security officials arrested Amin Khaki, an assistant pastor in a fellowship led by Irani, along with seven other Christians at a picnic in Shoush, in Khuzestan Province, according to Present Truth Ministries. Security officials questioned those detained and then released all of them except Khaki and Hossein Barunzadeh, the two Christians for whom they had warrants, and Rahmen Bahman. All were still in prison at press time.

 

Jason Demars, president of Present Truth Ministries, said he thinks the timing of the arrests and the raid on Irani’s prison cell were planned.

 

“We believe it was not a coincidence. VEVAK [internal security police] often coordinates arrests,” Demars told Morning Star News. “In 2010, several pastors from the Church of Iran denomination were arrested on the same day – from Shiraz to Tehran to Rasht. The next day a house-church service was raided, and a pastor and several members of the church were arrested as well. It simply shows that VEVAK spends a great deal of time planning the persecution of Christians.”

 

The advocate for Middle East Concern said the arrests fit a pattern of intimidation by the Iranian government.

 

“Church leaders in Iran increasingly point to what they believe to be carefully orchestrated campaigns to undermine church networks, particularly by ‘squeezing’ church leaders through harsh restrictions and intimidation tactics,” he said. “While it is hard to know the precise motivations in the case of Behnam, the series of actions against his associates [including raids on homes in the Karaj area in December, and the arrests in Shoush earlier in March] seem to fit this pattern.”

 

Irani has long been under the microscope of the Iranian government. He was first arrested in December 2006 for evangelizing and holding house-church meetings and then released on bail in January 2007. In February 2008, a court sentenced him to five years in prison but immediately suspended the sentence, essentially giving Irani five years of probation, so that his sentence could be brought into effect at the slightest infraction against the government.

 

Continuing his Christian work unabated, Irani was arrested again on April 14, 2010. Authorities charged him with spreading Christianity, attending house-church meetings and committing other crimes against “national security.” Behman was released on bail in June 2010.

 

In January 2010 he was convicted and ordered to serve a one-year sentence in prison. On May 31, 2011, when he showed up to start serving his sentence, he was informed that the suspension on the five-year sentence had been revoked.

 

Released

On March 2, Armenian Christian Sevada Aghasar was released from Tehran’s Evin Prison on bail. Aghasar was arrested in Karaj on Aug. 21, 2013 after plain-clothes security authorities raided his office while he was inside with two converts from Islam. Mohabat News reported that one of the two converts may have been released as well. No charges have been filed yet against Aghasar.

 

As Aghasar was leaving prison, Alireza Seyyendian, a convert from Islam, was returning from a five-day leave. In November 2011 he was convicted on charges of spreading propaganda against the regime and acting against national security. He is serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence in prison, which he started serving in March 2012.

 

U.S.-Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini continues to recover in a private hospital for chronic pain in his stomach, according to the American Center for Law and Justice, a U.S.-based group advocating on behalf of Abedini and his wife. According to Mohabat News, Abedini was moved from Rajai Shahr Prison on March 6.

 

Mohabat News reported that at first he was receiving decent food and medicine for the first time in months. Earlier this week, however, Mohabat reported that doctors began withholding treatment from Abedini, and that security officers had shackled him to his hospital bed. The ACLJ has not publically confirmed reports of abuse but did state that Abedini had not received needed surgery.

 

Demars said that despite promises of reform from the government during the most recent elections, there has been no meaningful change in the way the government deals with Christians.

 

“Everyone knows the Ayatollah [Ali Hosseini] Khamenei [Supreme Leader of Iran] rules the country along with VEVAK, not the president and other elected officials,” Demars said. “The trend is more of the same; coordinated efforts on the part of VEVAK and the revolutionary courts to persecute Christians openly – threats, confiscation of materials, interrogations, brutality, guns pulled on peaceful people worshiping God and prison stays.”

 

Middle East Concern noted that the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Iran, in his most recent report last month, said that at least 49 Christians were imprisoned in Iran for their faith.

 

“The house-church movement has been designated at the highest level as a threat to national security,” the researcher said.

 

News from the Frontlines

Sunday March 30, 2014

Attorneys, Rights Groups Blast Death Sentence for Christian in Pakistan

Sawan Masih becomes second Christian on death row for alleged remarks.

By Our Pakistan Correspondent

LAHORE, Pakistan, March 28, 2014 (Morning Star News) – Rights groups and attorneys slammed the death sentence handed down to a Christian yesterday, saying the case for his blasphemy conviction was weak while Muslims who destroyed houses and shops in his neighborhood have been freed on bail.

Sawan Masih, now the second Christian on death row on blasphemy charges along with Asia Bibi, was sentenced by Lahore Additional District and Sessions Judge Chaudhry Ghulam Murtaza at the Kot Lakhpath Jail on Thursday (March 27). His trial took place at the jail due to security concerns. The street sweeper was also fined 200,000 rupees (US$2,027).

 

Accusations against Masih sparked the destruction of 180 Christian-owned homes and shops in Lahore’s Joseph Colony in March 2013; an anti-terrorism court freed the 133 Muslim suspects in spite of strong video evidence against them.

 

Masih, a young father of three, was accused of insulting the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, during a drunken conversation with a Muslim friend in the Joseph Colony area of Lahore on March 8, 2013. Naeem Shakir, the lead counsel for Masih, told Morning Star News after the verdict that it seemed Murtaza got “swayed by his religious passions” when handing the death sentence to Masih.

 

“The FIR [First Information Report] did not initially mention any objectionable remarks by Masih,” Shakir said. “The [blasphemy accusation] sentences were added eight days after the FIR was registered through a supplementary statement by the complainant on the police’s advice.”

 

The remarks were inserted two days after Supreme Court intervention in the case, he said. Shakir said that when the Supreme Court took up a supervisory role on a suo moto notice – on its own initiative, without formal petition from anyone else – on March 13, 2013, it rebuked Punjab Police for registering a flimsy FIR.

 

The lawyer with the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) said the FIR was not registered until 33 hours after the alleged incident, and that the prosecution was unable to account for the delay.

 

Seven witnesses recorded their statements against Masih during the trial, with two appearing in his favor. In his statement before the court, Masih said he committed no blasphemy and accused Shahid Imran, the complainant, of involving him in a fake case as part of a plot by local businessmen to use blasphemy allegations to drive Christians from Joseph Colony so they could seize it for industrial use.

 

“They hatched a conspiracy to push out the residents of the colony,” Masih told the court. “They contrived a case and got it filed by a person who was close to me. I am innocent.”

 

Shakir said that he would challenge Masih’s conviction in the Lahore High Court.

 

“I’m very hopeful that the High Court will annul the trial court’s verdict,” he said. “Masih has a very good case for acquittal.”

 

Tahir Bashir, another lawyer on Masih’s defense panel, told Morning Star News that he believed that Murtaza had convicted his client under immense pressure from local Muslim political and religious groups.

 

“In most cases involving blasphemy, it has been observed that the trial court judges are pressured by religious zealots to hand the maximum sentence to an accused,” he said, also expressing hope that Masih would be acquitted by the High Court.

 

Family Disappointed

Masih’s father, Chaman Masih, and brother, Saleem Masih, told Morning Star News they were extremely disappointed by the ruling.

 

“During the hearings of the case, the judge used to tell us that everything will be alright, but on Thursday he convicted my son on a completely fabricated charge,” Chaman Maish said. “This is sheer injustice with us.”

 

Saleem Masih was equally indignant.

 

“The Muslims burnt down our entire colony, yet only my brother has been given the death sentence and fined such a heavy amount,” he said. “Has the court done justice with us?”

 

On March 9, 2013, hundreds of protesters set ablaze two church buildings along with the shops and homes in Joseph Colony. The day before, police forced Christians to vacate their houses, saying otherwise they would also be attacked, but did little to avert the destruction.

 

An FIR was registered under the Anti-Terrorism Act against 83 people accused of the arson; a supplementary statement named 50 more in the FIR. The case is still pending in an anti-terrorism court while most of the accused have been set free on bail.

 

Joseph Colony residents and Christian rights activists assert that the local Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) lawmaker of the area, allegedly acting on the orders of the Punjab chief minister’s son, Hamza Shahbaz, played a central role in the attack on Joseph Colony to facilitate land-grabbing by local factory owners who supported him.

 

“The PML-N is directly responsible for the destruction of Joseph Colony,” said Rufus Solomon, a Christian rights activist with the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. “In the wake of the media hype over the incident, the government of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was forced to announce rebuilding of Christians’ houses and payment of compensation to them, but it was just a farce as elections were round the corner.”

 

He added that the Punjab Law Department’s attitude in pursuing the case against the arsonists also spoke of the ruling party’s intentions to give security to the country’s minorities.

 

“PTI’s Information Secretary and lawmaker Shireen Mazari condemned Masih’s conviction on the floor of the National Assembly on Friday,” Solomon said. “She also asked the Punjab government to explain what it had done to punish the arsonists, but the PML-N lawmakers failed to give any satisfactory answer.”

 

Pakistan Ulema Council Chairman Allama Tahir Ashrafi told Morning Star News he would not question the verdict against Masih but wanted to put a simple question before the courts: “Why haven’t the courts moved against the people involved in burning down Joseph Colony and desecrating the churches with the same vigor displayed while deciding Sawan Masih’s fate?”

 

Ashrafi said the selective judgment would further alienate the country’s minority groups, and that it was imperative that Muslims responsible for destroying Joseph Colony be punished for their crime.

 

“Such incidents tarnish Pakistan's image in the world,” he said.

 

Blasphemy Law

Rights groups have said the blasphemy law is often misused to persecute minorities and to settle personal scores.

 

Amnesty International today said Pakistan should immediately release Masih and quash his conviction.

 

“This is a travesty of justice,” said David Griffiths, Amnesty International's Deputy Asia Pacific Director, in a statement. “There are serious concerns about the fairness of his trial, and an argument between two friends is not a basis for sending anyone to the gallows. Sawan Masih must be released immediately and unconditionally.”

 

Vague formulation of the blasphemy laws, along with inadequate investigation by authorities and intimidation by mobs and some religious groups has promoted vigilantism across Pakistan, especially in Punjab province, Amnesty said.

 

Speaking out for reform of the laws has brought death. On Jan. 4, 2011, Salmaan Taseer, then governor of Punjab, was killed by one of his own security guards after campaigning to have the laws reformed. Two months later, on March 2, 2011, Pakistan’s first Christian cabinet member, Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, was fatally shot in Islamabad for criticizing the laws.

 

Although Pakistani courts have ordered death sentences on a variety of charges, thousands of inmates have been parked on death row since a government moratorium on executions began in 2008. But since the election last year of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has publicly supported capital punishment, analysts have speculated that the government might move to hold executions.

 

Pakistan’s Statute 295-A forbids outraging religious feelings, 295-B forbids defiling the Koran and 295-C forbids defaming Muhammad, but parts A and B require that intent be shown in order to obtain a conviction. Defiling the Koran is punishable by life in prison (25 years in Pakistan), and defaming Muhammad is punishable by death with or without a fine.

 

Christians make up just 2.45 percent of Pakistan’s population, which is nearly 96 percent Muslim, according to Operation World. Religiously charged court cases commonly involve clamoring crowds of Muslims and other pressures coming to bear on lawyers and judges. On July 13, 2013, a court in Toba Tek Singh District, Punjab Province sentenced 29-year-old Sajjad Masih to life in prison after Islamist mobs clamored for a conviction for defaming Muhammad, in spite of the complainant retracting the accusation and admitting police pressured him into making it, according to Masih’s attorney (see Morning Star News, July 15).

 

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been used to falsely accuse other Christians. Karma Patras, a 56-year-old pastor released on bail after his accuser said he was mistaken in filing the complaint (see Morning Star News), was exonerated in June 2013.

 

Asia Noreen (also known as Asia Bibi), a Christian mother of five, was sentenced to death after being incarcerated on false charges of blasphemy since November 2010.

 

Blasphemy charges against Rimsha Masih, a girl whose mental age was determined to be less than 14 years old, were dismissed on Nov. 20, 2012 after a judge ruled that they were baseless (see Morning Star News, Nov. 20, 2012). She has since been relocated to Canada.

 

News from the Frontlines

Friday March 28, 2014

Young Woman in Uganda Hospitalized after Father Beats Her; Mulinde's Sight Saved

Elsewhere in country, church buildings, pastor's home razed.

By Our East Africa Correspondent

NAIROBI, Kenya, March 27, 2014 (Morning Star News) – A dream of praying in a church frightened a recent college graduate in Uganda, the Muslim daughter of sheikh; she knew he was capable of seriously hurting her for such a religious switch.

Wenene Nuru, 23, of Iki-Iki township in Pallisa District, had been listening to a Christian-Muslim dialogue on “The Sonship of Jesus Christ” on the radio before she had the dream on Feb. 28.

 

“When I woke up from the dream, I became unsettled and terrified and could not tell my father, who is a sheikh [Muslim teacher],” she told Morning Stare News. “I decided to visit a Christian girl, who took me to a birthday party. A visiting pastor from Jinja, Uganda shared about Christ being born in a person’s heart, there and then I gave my life to Christ.”

 

Nuru left that celebration on March 2 very excited. Like most converts from Islam, upon reaching home she kept her new faith a secret. The next day a neighbor who had attended the party telephoned her father, however, and informed him that his daughter had converted to Christianity.

 

On March 4, at about 8 p.m., her father, Nuru Rajabu, could no longer contain his anger.

 

“My father began beating me with clubs and blows, and I started screaming in great pain,” she said. “While I was down on the floor bleeding, my father went looking for a knife to kill me. A neighbor named Saleem arrived and helped me escape.”

 

She found lodging from a nearby church and was taken to a hospital the next day.

 

“Wenene was hospitalized for a week at Pallisa Hospital,” a source whose identity is withheld for security reasons told Morning Star News. “Now she is being housed by one of the elders of the church in Pallisa.”

 

Pallisa is 183 kilometers (113 miles) northeast of Kampala.

 

Brought up largely by her step-mother after her mother died when Nuru was 7 years old, the Mass Communications student completed her university education at the end of 2013.

 

The source said Nuru is in need of further treatment and rental lodging.

 

Near Pallisa, in predominantly Muslim Budaka and Butaleja districts in eastern Uganda, Islamic extremists burned down two church buildings of the Free Church of Christ in February and the home of a church leader earlier this month, the church leader said.

 

Bishop James Kinyewa, 47, said they set fire to one church building, in Budaka District, on Feb. 15 and another, in Nabiganda village, Butaleja District, on Feb. 25. The same Islamic extremists burned down his house on March 2, he said.

 

“While I was preaching , I heard loud noise, people saying, ‘Fire! Fire!’ coming from nearby neighbors,” he told Morning Star News by phone.

 

Rowdy Muslim youths with clubs and machetes prevented him and others from going near enough to try to put out the fire at his house, Kinyewa said.

 

“They were shouting, ‘Allahu Akbar [God is greater],’” he said. “Now the same militant group is hunting for my life. My family and I  are now hiding ourselves, homeless and waiting for God’s intervention.”

 

Everything inside the two razed church buildings, which served a total of 240 people, was destroyed, said, Kinyewa, who before his conversion used to practice a former of witchcraft called Majin (“evil powers”) under the guidance of Muslim syncretists.

 

“My church members have no place to worship,” Kinyewa said.  “The estimated cost of the damage caused is about 12 million Uganda shillings [US$4,625].”

 

Saving Mulinde’s Vision

Senior Pastor/Bishop Umar Mulinde of Gospel Life Church International, outside Kampala, told Morning Star News that doctors in Israel have saved his sight and hearing following the acid attack he suffered at the hands of Islamic extremists on Christmas Eve 2011.

 

“The eye which was to be removed was sending very wrong signals to the other one, almost making me totally blind, and two surgeries on the eye have been made to save my sight,” Mulinde wrote in a recent email.

 

Since Islamic extremists shouting “Allahu Akbar [God is greater]” cast acid on him on the street on Dec. 24, 2011, Mulinde has been in constant pain.

 

“I have undergone pains that I had never imagined in life, and even if I try to explain it, I feel that it’s so hard for me to satisfy another person to really understand it all,” he said. “But in all, I am glad to see that I am managing to overcome the trauma with courage to endure suffering.”

 

On Feb. 3, Mulinde underwent major facial surgery to reconstruct his right ear, which had been entirely closed over with skin due to acid burns, he said.

 

“It has been like unending battle, and this was the eight facial reconstruction surgery,” he said. “I am happy that it was successful, I am healing well. Doctors reconstructed the ear and saved my hearing too.”

 

Mulinde said it has been difficult being far away from his younger children and church, and he expressed concern for converts from Islam in Uganda.

 

“They continue to suffer discrimination, expulsion from families, and threats of death, and the recent rise of extremists taking important political positions is worrying us much,” he said. “We are networking to keep resisting evil and looking for my possible return soon, though the perpetrators are yet to be apprehended. But we trust the One who saved me will continue His work; yet we find that my return will help our community much for a solid foundation to our struggle.”

 

News from the Frontlines

Wednesday March 26, 2014

Police in India Rebuke, File Case against Christians Fleeing Hindu Extremist Attack

Assailants threaten to kill church members who refuse to 're-convert.'

By Our New Delhi Correspondent

NEW DELHI, March 26, 2014 (Morning Star News) – A police station official in India’s Jharkhand state this month reviled Christians who sought protection after Hindu extremists beat and threatened to kill them for refusing to convert to Hinduism, area church leaders said.

Accusing Christian leaders of forcible conversion, the Hindu extremists earlier this month attempted to forcibly convert several church members after disrupting a home worship service, beating them and parading them half-naked through the street, area pastor Rampath Nath told Morning Star News.

 

Police subsequently registered a case of forcible conversion against four Christians, he said.

 

Virender Singh, the police official at the station in Patratu Thana, Ramgarh District, verbally abused the Christians who fled their homes, rebuked them and sent them away without taking their complaint after the Hindu extremists beat them on two consecutive days, stripped off their clothes and chased them from Pali village, Nath said.

 

Some 10 Hindu extremists stormed into the March 4 worship meeting at the house of pastor Tilas Bedia at 7 p.m. and began beating the Christians, including the pastor’s 60-year-old mother, Christian leaders said.

 

“The extremists asked the Christians why they are following Christ when they should be worshipping their tribal god and threatened to kill them if they continued to follow Christ,” Nath said. “They left after they told the Christians that they will teach them a lesson the next day.”

 

On March 5 at about 11 a.m. a mob of extremists appeared, led by Suresh Upadia, leader of the local Vishwa Hindu Parishad, youth wing of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal, and village head Rohan Bedia. They dragged several Christians from their homes to the compound of the village head, who summoned a public meeting.

 

“The extremists dragged about 15 people who come to our prayer meetings,” said Jodhan Bedia, a pastor at the church. “They let us stand in the middle and started to verbally abuse us for following Christ, for being low-caste, and warned us to convert back to Hinduism or face harm.”

 

Several terrified church members denied they were Christians, pastors said.

 

“They ran off after saying they were Hindus,” Tilas Bedia said, “and two teenage girls who did not deny Christ were forcefully ‘converted’ back to Hinduism.”

 

Manita Kumari, 16, and Meenu Kumari, 17, refused to renounce Christ, he said.

 

“The extremists slapped them, verbally abused them for their faith in Christ, threatening them that they will never find a husband if they remain Christians, and forced them to worship Hindu idols at the spot,” he said.

 

The extremists continued to mock and beat Tilas Bedia, and his brother, Chandra Bedia, as well as the latter’s family; they also beat Jodhan Bedia.

 

“We told the extremists that we are ready to leave our house, but we cannot leave Christ,” Tilas Bedia said.

 

The Hindu nationalists slapped and kicked the Christians and struck them with their hands, slippers and clubs. The mother of Tilas and Chandra Bedia fell to the ground from the beating, spraining her ankle as her face swelled up from the blows, they said.

 

The extremists then dragged Tilas Bedia, Chandra Bedia and another Christian leader along a road, paraded them half-naked as they jeered and beat them, and dragged them to the outskirts of the village.

 

“They forced us to sign on a blank paper and told us that we will be cut into pieces if we ever return to the village,” Tilas Bedia said. “They said, ‘Those who worship Jesus cannot stay in the village.’”

 

The three Christians, who converted to Christianity about four years ago, sustained bruises and marks on their backs, and swelling on their faces and other areas, Nath said.

 

“On March 10, we received a copy of a First Information Report registered against pastor Tilas Bedia, Chandra Bedia, pastor Jodhan Bedia and myself by police officer Virender Singh of forceful conversion,” Nath said.

 

Singh was not available for comment, but Ramgarh Superintendent of Police Shri Ranjit Kumar Singh told Morning Star News that he had received the Christians’ police complaint and had sent a deputy to investigate.

 

“Nobody can say anything about the faith that a person chose,” the superintendent said. “The Constitution of India has given the right to each individual to follow the faith that he or she likes. Appropriate action will be taken against the culprits.”

 

The pastors were scheduled to appear before a judge on April 4. Area Christian leaders said there was no instance of forceful conversion by the accused.

 

Since Tilas Bedia, Chandra Bedia and Jodhan Bedia began following Christ, their families have been shunned and boycotted and have faced continual threats, Nath said.

 

“They are not allowed to fetch water from the public well, they are not allowed to walk on the main road and they were prohibited from buying and selling in the village,” Nath said. “They were often beat up and verbally abused and warned to renounce Christ or face harm.”

 

News from the Frontlines

Monday March 24, 2014

Gunmen Open Fire on Church in Mombasa, Kenya

At least seven dead in attack by suspected Islamic extremists.

By Our East Africa Correspondent

NAIROBI, Kenya, March 24, 2014 (Morning Star News) – Gunmen entered a Sunday morning worship service in Kenya’s coastal Mombasa County yesterday and sprayed the congregation with bullets, killing at least seven Christians and leaving several others in critical condition.

Two heavily-armed men wounded more than a dozen of the 200-member Joy in Jesus Church in the Likoni area of Mombasa, where a mosque said to have ties with the Somali Islamic extremist group Al Shabaab has caused tensions.

 

Among the dead was assistant pastor Phillip Musasa, sources told Morning Star News.

 

“The pastor had a head injury and succumbed to the injury while being rushed to the hospital,” said a pastor who visited victims today at Coast General Hospital, also known as Makandara Hospital. “I saw 10 of the survivors in the hospital, and they are in a critical state.”

 

Another pastor, also speaking anonymously due to security threats in the area, said hospitalized church members were in great pain.

 

“Most of the victims need blood,” he said.

 

No one has taken responsibility for the attack, which reportedly involved a third gunman outside the church building shooting at Christians fleeing the attack. Church leaders suspected Islamic extremists had carried it out in reprisal for a raid by armed police on the Masjid Musa Mosque (now Masjid Shuhada, or "Martyrs Mosque") on Feb. 2, in which more than 100 Muslims were arrested and at least two killed; most of those detained have been released.

 

“We as the church feel that what happened is a retaliation for the attack that took place in Masjid Musa Mosque recently,” said one church leader. “When the Muslims are attacked, there is a false generalization that the Christians are the ones doing it. We as the church became a scapegoat for the recent attack on the mosque.”

 

Authorities believe the mosque has been used as a recruitment center for Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-affiliated militia waging war in neighboring Somalia. Two months ago authorities issued a warning of possible major attacks in the area and arrested two suspects found with powerful explosives last week. Police reportedly suspected Al Shabaab militants for the Joy in Jesus Church attack.

 

A pastor who requested anonymity said he suspected Al Shabaab sympathizers.

 

“We suspect this is a group of radical Muslim youth who support the Al Shabaab militia that is gaining root here in Mombasa,” he said.

 

Another pastor said the assault was “a planned attack aimed at creating fear in church members, which in turn will weaken the presence of the church in the coastal region of Kenya.”

 

Authorities have arrested scores of people for questioning but not the primary, unidentified suspects. After the shooting, the assailants tried to attack the nearby Redeemed Gospel Church, known as the Jesus Celebration Center, Christian leaders said.

 

“Fortunately, they could not get inside the church because they found armed police men manning the place,” said one pastor. “As the attackers fled Joy in Jesus Church [also known as Joy in Christ Church], a box holding 26 bullets dropped outside the church.”

 

Bishop Wilfred Lai, senior pastor of the Redeemed Gospel Church and chairman of the County Church Forum, said area Christians will not be deterred.

 

“We as the body of Christ in the coastal region of Kenya will stand firm in spite of the cruel act of terrorism,” he said.

 

At about 5 p.m. on Sunday (March 23), a government officials convened a meeting of security agents, Christian pastors and Islamic leaders to discuss maintaining peace in the coastal region of Kenya. Mombasa County Gov. Hassan Ali Joho urged religious leaders to preach peaceful co-existence and tolerance.

 

Two hard-line sheikhs from the Musa mosque have been killed since 2012, with area Muslims suspecting police shot them. The mosque’s sheikh Abubakar Sharrif, also known as Makaburi, interviewed about the Joy in Jesus Church attack  by NTV’s Dennis Ogari on Sunday night, said that Kenyan Christians are infidels, “therefore when sheikhs are killed, then we also will kill” Christians.

 

Suspected Islamic extremists likely killed Lawrence Kazungu Kadenge, 59, an assistant pastor at Glory of God Ministries Church, in the Majengo area of Mombasa on Feb. 2 for sharing his faith near the Musa mosque and alerting authorities to security threats, sources said. Some youths reportedly raised the black flag of Al Shabaab at the mosque that day, when the raid by authorities touched off riots.

 

On Oct. 19, 2013, suspected Islamic extremists in Mombasa killed pastor Charles “Patrick” Matole of Vikwantani Redeemed Gospel Church following riots associated with the same mosque. Matole had received death threats. The murder came a few weeks after rioting in Mombasa by Muslims enraged at the killing of sheikh Ibrahim Omar and three others on a road near Mombasa (see Morning Star News, Oct. 7, 2013).

 

During the riots, Muslim youths from the Masjid Musa Mosque shouting “Allahu Akbar [God is Greater]” set fire to the Salvation Army Church building in the Majengo area. They accused police of killing the hard-line Islamist sheikh, and in the police response to the rampaging Muslim youths, including officers’ efforts to stop them from attacking a Pentecostal church in Mombasa, four people were reportedly killed and several others wounded.

 

Omar had been a student of sheikh Aboud Rogo, also mysteriously killed in his vehicle in August 2012, who had been accused of aiding in recruitment and funding for Al Shabaab. At the Musa mosque, some 200 meters from the Salvation Army Church building, Omar reportedly issued incendiary sermons against non-Muslims.

 

According to Kenya’s National Intelligence Service, the imam had invited jihadists from Somalia to bomb targets in Nairobi and Mombasa in retaliation for the killing of Rogo. The same Salvation Army Church building was set ablaze in 2012 in response to the killing of Rogo.

 

Al Shabaab took responsibility for the assault on the Westgate Shopping Mall on Sept. 21, 2013, which killed at least 67 people with dozens still unaccounted for. The assailants killed those they could identify as non-Muslims. Al Shabaab has said attacks on Kenyan soil are in retaliation for Kenyan-led African Union forces retaking ground from the Islamic extremist group in its attempt to take over Somalia.

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