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.”
Friday May 10, 2013
War-weary from months of fighting, one community attempts to co-exist with rebel militias.
The Atlantic DANNY GOLD APR 18 2013
George Abdulahad stood on his balcony in the Syrian city of Ras al-Ayn filling in bullet holes with plaster. His apartment, like many in the Christian neighborhood, lay gutted, the walls destroyed by an RPG or some sort of incendiary device. The fighting had been over for nearly a month now, but Abdulahad still seemed devastated by his newfound homelessness. "Where can I go, I don't know," said the 58-year-old man. "There is no electricity, no water. The living here is like living in a coffin."
On Easter Sunday, the churches that follow the traditional Christian calendar in this Syrian border town lay empty. They haven't had services for four months, and most of their congregations have fled or are picking through the rubble. Some fear that another round of fighting will break out. A recent spate of kidnappings has also cast a shadow over the Christian residents of this diverse city in northeastern Syria.
During the last phase of the fighting, in which the FSA fought the YPG, Abdulahad lay trapped in his apartment for 17 days, subsisting on very little water and stale bread.
Those still left in the city feel defenseless among the current vacuum of authority. Despite a truce currently in place, the constant presence of heavily armed rebel soldiers from different warring factions does little to assuage their fears. "There are so many battles in this city, I don't feel safe. There is no one in charge, no government," Abdulahad says. "I am afraid of anyone with a gun."
Starting in November, roughly four months of fighting devastated the city. The Free Syrian Army, along with Islamist groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra, attacked Assad regime soldiers. After regime soldiers were forced out, the rebel coalition then battled the Kurdish militia known as the Popular Defense Forces (YPG), They fought pitched battles throughout the city streets as the Assad regime continued to send aircrafts on bombing runs.
During the last phase of the fighting, in which the FSA fought the YPG, Abdulahad lay trapped in his apartment for 17 days, subsisting on very little water and stale bread. Many residents fled the city, with some activists speculating that 65 percent of the total population had left. In February, Syrian Christian dissident Michel Kilo brokered peace between the factions. Some residents have returned, despite power cuts, water shortages, and the constant presence of various armed fighters.
Ras al-Ayn, located along the border with Turkey, is a city of 50,000 with a diverse population of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians, and Chechens, and it's home to three Christian churches. Christians make up an estimated 10 percent of Syria's 23 million citizens. Issam Bishara, regional director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, recently told Asia News that approximately 300,000 Syrian Christians have fled the country. The increased sectarianism in the conflict, especially the growing influence of Jihadi forces, has left many fearful of what's to come.
The mural on the front door of a local church. It has not held services in four months and most of the congregation has fled. (Danny Gold)
Prior to the conflict, many saw Ras al-Ayn as a beacon of tolerance between Muslims and Christians. Residents say that they there is still a camaraderie among the citizens that live there, but that problems arise from those fighting who don't live in the city, be they FSA, YPG, or Islamists.
At one of the damaged churches, the caretaker said that 25 local Muslims had come to the church after the fighting stopped to help clean up. Near a small cluster of shops just down the road from where the last airplane strike hit, a group of shopkeepers drinking tea discussed the unity of the city. "I am 62 years old, a son of this city," said one. "I lived in a city with Kurds and Arabs and Christians, from the old days when the mosque was side by side with the Church. It didn't matter, we lived like brothers."
"I lived in a city with Kurds and Arabs and Christians, from the old days when the mosque was side by side with the Church. It didn't matter, we lived like brothers."
Residents were hesitant to speak of Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda-linked jihadi group and most powerful Islamist faction in Syria, which has established a base on the other side of town. Some claimed not to be perturbed by their presence, though it's hard to tell if they were being truthful or simply feared reprisal for negative comments. Two Assyrian Christian brothers, Ziad, 50, and Najeem, 64, work on a border checkpoint with the FSA and some of the Islamist factions. "I have no problem with Jabhat Al-Nusra, is better than Bashar [al-Assad] 100 times," Ziad said. "They don't attack us or send airplanes. They are like the FSA, they will bring justice."
Jean, an 18-year-old whose home was also destroyed in the fighting, said, "In the beginning we were afraid of them, the regime told us Jabhat would kill Christians, but now Jabhat has not done anything to us so we are not afraid."
Still, Jean says he would not venture to the area where Jabhat had set up their base. "They are so religious, maybe they think that I'm a nonbeliever and then, I don't know," he added, trailing off.
In an article written for a Christian Orthodox website, Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Eusthathius Matta Roham called the Islamists, without naming Jabhat specifically, a great threat to the lives of Syrian Christians in Ras al-Ayn. He also praised the YPG for rooting out the rebels and protecting the Christian neighborhood.
Like many other Christians interviewed, a 24-year-old Christian named Diana refuses to answer questions about the specific armed fractions. "We don't know about the fighting groups. All we want is the fighting to stop," she said. "My home has been destroyed, everyone has left."
I asked her who she was scared of. "Everyone," she replied. "My future is gone."
Previously she had studied in Aleppo, but she rarely leaves her neighborhood now.
Of particular concern to the Christians is kidnapping, which only some would admit seems specifically targeted at Christians. The week before we arrived, two local Christian men were kidnapped after they went searching for a stolen car. It's unclear who's doing the kidnapping. Many speculate it's simply criminal gangs trying to make money.
Elias Karmo, 22, is one of the few from his friends and family to remain in the city. A caretaker for one of the churches, he walked us around the damaged property, showing us the bell tower used by snipers and the adjacent school that had been ransacked. "Before the damage and this fighting we could take a walk, do whatever we want. Now we can't," he said. "Everyone is scared they could be kidnapped."
Elias Karmo no longer feels safe leaving his neighborhood due to fear of kidnappings.
Elias's uncle, Joseph Karmo, described in detail how he was kidnapped twice. The first time, he was in a car near the church. A group of armed men drove up and told him they needed medicine from the closed pharmacy where his brother works. Then they grabbed him and drove him three hours to the countryside of Aleppo. He was held for seven days. They didn't beat him much, but they showed him pictures of dead people. "They asked my family for money, and they said, 'If they don't pay, we'll kill you like this,'" he said.
The second time he was kidnapped was in Hasakah. A group of men pretended there was a car accident. When he stopped to see what happened, they pulled out guns and took him while his wife and children sat in the car. He says he doesn't know why they targeted him. It could be criminals, or a gang, he speculates. "It's very bad here, the situation is very bad," he says. "When the night comes, we don't leave our homes."
Diana sees little hope for the future of Syrian Christians, and talks of joining cousins in Sweden. No one, she said, has provided any help or support to the Christian community in Ras al-Ayn. "We don't want words, we want action. Our cousins in America and Sweden tell us they pray for us, but this prayer does nothing," she said. "We are still here."
Friday May 10, 2013
BBC, April 23rd 2013
Syria's Christian community is one of the oldest in the world, going back two millennia.
The apostle Paul is said to have been converted on the road to Damascus, while some Christians from the town of Maaloula can still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Near the northern city of Aleppo is the Church of St Simeon Stylites, who spent decades on top of a stone pillar to demonstrate his faith, while in the mountains west of Homs is the castle of Krak des Chevaliers, which was a fortress for the Knights Hospitaller during the Crusades.
Christians are believed to have constituted about 30% of the Syrian population as recently as the 1920s. Today, they make up about 10% of Syria's 22 million people.
The future of Christians in Syria is threatened not by Muslims but by chaos”
Gregorios III Laham - Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch
Sunni Muslims meanwhile make up some 70% of the population and about 12% are Alawites, members of a heterodox Shia sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs. There are smaller numbers of Druze and other sects.
The vast majority of Syrian Christians belong to Eastern denominations. The largest and oldest is the Greek Orthodox Church, which has about 503,000 members. The Armenian Apostolic Church has between 112,000 and 160,000, and the Syrian Orthodox Church about 89,000.
Among the Uniate Churches, which are in communion with Rome, the largest is the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, with between 118,000 and 240,000 members. It is followed by the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch, which has between 28,000 and 60,000, the Armenian Catholic Church, the Syrian Catholic Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church.
The Assyrian Church of the East has about 46,000 followers.
Despite their minority status, Christians have long been among Syria's elite. They have been represented in many of the political groups which have vied for control of the country, including the secular Arab nationalist and socialist movements which eventually came to the fore.
Christians have been accused of backing President Bashar al-Assad, but most have not taken sides
The founder of the Baath Party, which has ruled Syria since 1963, was a Christian, and Christians rose to senior positions in the party, government and security forces, although they are generally not seen to have any real power compared with their Alawite and Sunni colleagues.
Although, like other Syrians, they had very limited civil and political freedoms, Christians are believed to have valued the rights and protection accorded to minorities by Hafez al-Assad, who was president between 1971 and 2000, and by his son Bashar.
A large proportion of the country's Sunnis also tolerated or supported the Assads, whom they saw as guarantors of stability.
When pro-democracy protests erupted in Syria in March 2011, many Christians were cautious and tried to avoid taking sides. However, as the government crackdown intensified and opposition supporters took up arms, they were gradually drawn into the conflict.
Hundreds of thousands of Christians have been displaced by the fighting or left the country in the past two years. Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham recently said more than 1,000 Christians had been killed, "entire villages… cleared of their Christian inhabitants", and more than 40 churches and Christian centres damaged or destroyed.
This has led some Christians to express support for President Assad, particularly as sectarian violence has increased and jihadist militant groups calling for an Islamic state in Syria have grown in strength.
Some Christian communities have been drawn into the conflict
Many fear that if President Assad is overthrown, Christians will be targeted and communities destroyed as many were in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003. They have also been concerned by the coming to power of Islamist parties in post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia.
Some communities are reported to have taken up offers from the government to arm groups of youths, called "popular committees", to defend themselves from rebel attacks.
Other Christians are believed to be assisting the opposition. Many are active in political groups such as the Syrian National Council, whose leader, the veteran communist George Sabra, is from a Christian family. The Local Co-ordination Committees, an opposition activist network, also includes Christians.
Christian opposition activists have accused the government of stoking sectarian tensions, including by using Alawite-led security forces and Alawite militiamen to target Sunni civilians, and overplaying the threat posed by the rebels to Syria's minorities.
'Die or leave'
On 22 April 2013, two senior clerics became caught up in the war.
Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Aleppo, and Bishop Boulos Yaziji, head of the Greek Orthodox Church there, were kidnapped by gunmen while they were on what was described as a humanitarian trip.
Bishop Ibrahim had spoken to BBC Arabic only a few days beforehand, saying both sides were to blame for the conflict and that Christians were not being targeted.
"There is no persecution of Christians and there is no single plan to kill Christians. Everyone respects Christians," he insisted. "Bullets are random and not targeting the Christians because they are Christians."
But on 15 April, Patriarch Gregorios had warned in a statement sent to a Catholic charity: "There is no safe place left in Syria."
"The whole of Syria has become a battlefield... Every aspect of democracy, human rights, freedom, secularism and citizenship is lost from view and no-one cares.
"The future of Christians in Syria is threatened not by Muslims but by... chaos... and the infiltration of uncontrollable fanatical, fundamentalist groups," he added.
Patriarch Gregorios said the threat to Christianity in Syria had wider implications for the religion's future in the Middle East because the country had for decades provided a refuge for Christians from neighbouring Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere.
His comments echoed those by another Damascus-based prelate, Maronite Archbishop Samir Nassar, who said Christians in Syria had to "choose between two bitter chalices: to die or leave".
Wednesday May 8, 2013
Family members no longer allowed to visit Saeed Abedini.
By Our Istanbul Correspondent
ISTANBUL, May 7, 2013 (Morning Star News) – An Iranian-American pastor spent his 33rd birthday in solitary confinement today, suffering from untreated injuries from beatings by prisoners and officials in an Iranian prison.
Saeed Abedini has spent six months in Tehran’s harsh Evin Prison, known for housing political dissidents and government protestors, where he is serving an eight-year sentence for planting house churches from 2000 to 2005. Although there is no law against house churches, the government termed his involvement a threat to “national security,” even though he had ceased such work after agreeing in 2009 to limit his ministry to humanitarian work.
An international letter-writing campaign for his birthday resulted in more than 52,000 letters arriving at the maximum-security prison. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an advocacy group that represents his family, worked with intermediaries to send the notes to Evin Prison.
The large number of letters also serves to let Iranian officials know that the international community is still fighting for his release, said Tiffany Barrans, international legal director of the ACLJ.
“We know from former prisoners that letters are a source of encouragement, that the guards are required to translate every incoming mail, and that these letters put the government of Iran on notice that it is being watched,” Barrans told Morning Star News.
Abedini was sentenced on Jan. 27 for threatening “national security,” a catch-all phrase often used by Iranian courts to imprison converts from Islam for various sorts of evangelistic activities.
In late April he was put into solitary confinement following a “peaceful, silent protest” in an outside courtyard with other prisoners over the lack of medical care and threats against visiting family members, according to Mohabat News Agency.
He and nine others were placed into solitary confinement. Abedini suffers severe internal bleeding from beatings.
His wife, Naghmeh Abedini, released a statement today describing her feelings.
“There is a deep piercing pain in my heart knowing that you will spend your birthday in solitary confinement, constrained to a small room, not knowing when it is day or night,” she stated. “Under constant torture and abuse by radicals who are trying to break you and have you deny your faith in Jesus.
“With tightness in my throat, pain in my heart, and tears streaming down my face ... so very weak, I promise to stand strong in the strength of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ fighting with every strength of my being until you are united to our family again.”
Guards have stepped up harassment in recent weeks. Yesterday (May 6) officials prevented his father from visiting. On April 29, other family members in Iran were turned away and told they would no longer be able to visit Abedini.
This shift came after guards fed him false hopes of medical treatment. On April 15, prison officials took him to a hospital but brought him back without any treatment and beat him severely that day, according to International Christian Concern.
His family members, who visited him that day, said that his cellmates threatened to suffocate him in his sleep and make the death look like an accident.
The treatment is an intentional strategy by prison officials to force the pastor renounce Christianity, said ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow.
“We know that a tactic used by the Iranians is to place prisoners in solitary confinement in an effort to get them to give in to the demands of prison officials – in pastor Saeed’s case, to recant his Christian faith,” he said.
Abedini has traveled back and forth between the United States and Iran since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2010. He has made over nine humanitarian trips to Iran since 2009 and planned to establish an orphanage on his most recent trip.
Between his conversion in 2000 and 2005 he worked to establish house churches at a time of relative religious freedom in Iran. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election as president, however, crackdowns on Christians intensified. Abedini was arrested in 2009 and released on the condition that he only engage in humanitarian work.
He was on such a trip last year when he was arrested. He was working with his family’s non-profit organization, whose Farsi name translates to “Morning Star,” which works to house and educate orphans.
Abedini’s family members assert that the charges for his original arrest – that he was working with illegal church groups – is not only unjust but false. No criminal law in Iran penalizes private religious gatherings in a person’s home, regardless of whether they are affiliated with a church, Barrans said.
“If there were such a crime, the Iranian government would have charged pastor Saeed with that crime,” said Barrans. “But because pastor Saeed’s actions of gathering with fellow believers were lawful, the Iranian government had to charge pastor Saeed under the vague and manipulable ‘national security’ offense – thus allowing the government to assert that a perfectly lawful act was intended to undermine the national security.”
Moreover, Naghmeh has said that the house church Abedini was working with before 2005 was legal at the time because it was sponsored by a legally recognized church.
The international push for his release is slowly gaining momentum. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s annual report, released last month, cited Abedini’s case as one of many reasons it considers Iran a “Country of Particular Concern” for “egregious religious freedom violations.”
In March, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for his release, as did State Department officials at the United Nations.
Organizations that have publicly called for his release include the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, which raised Abedini’s case at the U.N. Human Rights Council. The European Union also demanded at the United Nations that Iran release him.
Over 580,000 have signed a petition for his release at savesaeed.org.
Behind the scenes, private diplomatic efforts continue to try securing his release.
Naghmeh and their two children, a 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, reside in Idaho. Abedini was ordained as a member of the American Evangelistic Association in 2008.
The family was shaken by the news that he was put into solitary confinement, Barrans said. Sekulow added that until he is released, advocacy groups are continually working to lift the pastor’s spirits and apply pressure on the Iranian regime for his release.
“We want pastor Saeed to know that he is not forgotten, and thousands upon thousands of people are fighting for his freedom,” Sekulow said. “It is also an important opportunity to let Iran know that we will not forget about this persecuted pastor. Iranian officials will be reviewing and paying attention to these letters. They will feel the incredible pressure of the world community calling for pastor Saeed’s release.”