News from the Frontlines

Thursday April 24, 2014

Three Egyptian Cousins Go to Libya; None Comes Back Alive

Once viewed as a center for opportunity, Benghazi now seen as a danger zone.

By Our Middle East Correspondent

ISTANBUL, Turkey, April 24, 2014 (Morning Star News) – The youngest cousin was carried back home in an ambulance, half dead with a bullet lodged in his skull. The next came back to the village just a month after he left, to be buried in a Coptic cemetery.

Another cousin disappeared in 2012; he is thought to have been taken by Islamic militants and hasn’t been heard from since.


For Christians in Egypt, the word “Benghazi” has become synonymous with death; for them, the seaside capital of Libya and surrounding area have gone from a place where Copts went to pursue better economic opportunities to one where they go and die.


In a quest to rid the city of Christians, Islamic militants have turned the area into a danger zone for Copts. Since March of last year, 13 Egyptian Christians have been killed there. Egyptian newspapers have been full of stories of Copts being arrested without cause, rounded up and executed or gunned down at their workplaces.


For one extended Coptic family in Egypt, the killings aren’t mere headlines; they have suffered the loss of two relatives, and likely a third, to Benghazi gunmen. They are the only extended family in Egypt known to have lost more than one member in Benghazi.


Though members of the family are emotionally torn, they say they have to accept the killings with faith. Noushy Saaed Tawfik, an uncle to one of the killed men, told Morning Star News, “We accept God’s burden upon us, and we accept His will.”


The most recent victim of the killings in Libya, Gad Abd Al-Messih Abd El-Malak, 37, died on March 29, after he was gunned down by Islamist militants. His cousin, Salama Fawzy Tobia, 23, was shot March 2 and died 13 days later.


All the victims came from Al Sheikh Talata village, an Upper Egypt backwater in Minya Province. When Egyptians picture Upper Egypt, most think of villages like Al Sheikh Talata. The village is insular and impoverished – date palms, donkeys and men dressed in a traditional loose-fitting garment known as a jellabiya dot a landscape of sugar cane and molokhia (Jute leaf) fields. Work is back-breaking and provides only a day-to-day existence. The village is so small it can’t be found on most maps of Egypt. The busy streets of Cairo seem like they are a world away. Libya is even farther.


No one knows how long the three men thought of leaving Al Sheikh Talata, whether they struggled with the decision to go or it came easily. But despite the dangers, the lure of a better life was too much for the three to refuse; there was no work left in the village. Tobia and Abd El-Malak left at different times; Talata in 2012, just after finishing his three-year conscription term in the army, and Abd El-Malak in February of this year. Emad Magdy, the kidnapping victim, left several years ago.


Tobia and Abd El-Malak lived in different homes in Benghazi, but both took the only job many unskilled migrants in the region can find. The both roamed the streets plying wares. Each of them worked at separate produce stands, selling vegetables to passers-by. The produce business gave them both a way to get enough cash for the day’s needs and, they hoped, a little extra. As an added benefit, any vegetables not sold at the end of the day could become part of their next meal.


When the killings started in Benghazi, both men wanted to come back.


“They were trying to leave like everybody else, but for some reason they couldn’t come back,” Said Tawfik, Tobia’s uncle.


Abd El-Malak had a wife and two children waiting for him in the village. Now, Tawfik said, “God is taking care of them.”


Both Tobia and Abd El-Malak were ambushed at their respective vegetable stands. The gunmen chased Abd El-Malak through the streets, firing as they went. He died on a Benghazi street, his body riddled with bullets. Tobia was shot in the head and taken to a local hospital. He was transported back to Egypt where, unconscious, he died almost two weeks later in a hospital bed in Samalut.


Next to nothing is known about the way Magdy was abducted. Tawfik said members of the family were able to get in touch with someone who worked with him about 18 months ago and learned that members of an Islamic militia group had picked him up sometime at the end of 2012. The kidnappers never issued any demands for release, and Magdy never made contact with the family.


He is presumed dead, but the family still has hope that he will be found alive. If he cannot be found alive, they hope they can at least find out what happened to him. According to the family, “99 percent” of their relatives who were in Libya have returned, Tawfik said.


Samia Sidhom, managing editor of the Cairo-based Coptic weekly Watani, said that three Copts related to each other “falling victim to Libyan Islamists” was not surprising but “too painful.”


“It’s not the Copts alone who leave Egypt for a ‘better opportunity’ in Libya – Muslims go too but are not persecuted because of their faith. Copts have always been a hardworking, ambitious lot and have managed to survive under persecution,” Sidhom said. “But they obviously underestimated the danger in Libya, possibly because so many of them had gone in the pre-Arab Spring times and, living peacefully, working hard, and keeping low profiles, they were well-accepted and made small fortunes. Now, of course, this has changed.”


News from the Frontlines

Wednesday April 23, 2014

European Effort to Control Unofficial Religious Groups, Homeschooling Disarmed

Resolutions to 'protect minors' violate state neutrality on religion, parental rights, opponents say.

By the Editor

April 22, 2014 (Morning Star News) – Opponents of a European initiative paving the way for governments to rule on the legitimacy of religious groups and reduce homeschooling rights – thus laying the groundwork for potential persecution of Christians – won a battle this month in the Council of Europe, sources said.

In Europe, where public education often includes teachings on morality at odds with churches, and officially unrecognized religious groups are labeled “sects,” the stakes were high for religious freedom advocates when resolutions granting European governments latitude to control “sects” and homeschoolers went to a vote in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) this month.


Religious rights group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) disseminated a memorandum arguing that the report and resolutions of Rudy Salles, rapporteur of PACE’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, contravened the European Convention on Human Rights and rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.


“The clear and unwavering jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights regarding state neutrality towards religious groups, coupled with the growing number of judgments from the Court against High Contracting Parties for improperly monitoring religious groups, stands in sharp contrast to the recommendations set forth by Mr. Salles,” the April 2 memo asserted. “Adoption of the Salles Report would further damage the rights of European parents in educating their children according to their own religious and philosophical convictions.”


A petition against Salles’ report, entitled “The Protection of Minors against Excesses of Sects,” obtained more than 10,000 signatures, and a wide array of rights organizations vigorously opposed the proposals. The report sought to establish a “European observatory” to monitor “groups of a religious, esoteric or spiritual nature to make it easier for national centres to exchange information,” according to a draft of the resolutions.


Salles, a member of France’s National Assembly, has been criticized for connections with a French agency, the Inter-Ministerial Mission for Vigilance and Action Against Sectarian Excesses (MIVILUDES), which is accused of conducting witch-hunts against independent religious groups. For his part, his report states that the Parliamentary Assembly had in 1999 attached “great importance to protecting those most vulnerable, and particularly the children of members of religious, esoteric or spiritual groups, in case of ill-treatment, rape, neglect, indoctrination through brainwashing and non-enrollment at school, which makes it impossible for welfare services to exercise supervision.”


In its memorandum, ADF argued that child-protection laws need not single out religious groups.


“To provide unfettered discretion to the state to extra-judicially monitor religious groups injures the very substance of religious freedom, parental rights and church autonomy,” the ADF memo asserted.


On education, the Salles report proposed state oversight, “in particular in terms of conformity of curricula and the quality of the teaching staff. In the case of home schooling, it would be useful for the children to be followed by the relevant departments of local authorities so that the latter can take prompt action if the children are not being properly schooled or there are other problems.”


The report proposed that member states would “make sure that compulsory schooling is enforced and ensure strict, prompt and effective monitoring of all private education, including home schooling.”


Curricula in many European countries violate many churches’ teachings on morality, and ADF argued that “adoption of the Salles Report would further damage the rights of European parents in educating their children according to their own religious and philosophical convictions.”


“In Salzkotten, Germany, 14 Christian parents were imprisoned, some for more than 40 days and most on multiple occasions, simply for opting their 9-10-year-old children from two days of mandatory ‘sexual education’ classes,” according to the ADF memo. “Also in Germany, a 15-year-old girl was placed in a mental institution for wishing to be home educated. The reason for her police detention and subsequent committal to the Nuremberg mental facility was the false diagnosis by a single practitioner that the young girl in question had ‘schoolphobia.’”


ADF further noted that police and social service representatives four years ago took 7-year-old Domenic Johansson off an airplane bound for Sweden simply for being home-educated. The family had been relocating to India to help with orphanages.


“The police had no warrant, and the family was accused of committing no crimes when young Domenic Johansson was taken from his parents nearly four years ago,” ADF asserted. “In Spain, the [José Luis Rodríguez] Zapatero government initiated mandatory classes known as ‘education for citizenship’ which indoctrinated young children with a bombardment of material promoting homosexual behavior, hypersexual behavior, communism and which aggressively mocked the Catholic Church. What was perhaps even more shocking was that the government refused all requests for parental opt-outs of the classes despite more than 50,000 complaints from parents, hundreds of lawsuits and ultimately a class-action style lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights.”


In Strasbourg, France on April 10, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe removed language from the Salles report that threatened religious freedom and parental rights to educate their children, according to CARE (Christian Action Research and Education) for Europe, a Brussels-based rights organization that works alongside ADF.


“The threat to religious liberty from French MP Rudy Salles’ Report and Resolution calling for the French anti-sect approach (with the label ‘sect’ being applied to any small or independent churches or other minority religious groups) to be rolled out across Europe, was defeated at the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly plenary session in Strasbourg by substantial amendments being passed which CARE had lobbied for,” said David Fieldsend, manager of CARE for Europe. “These largely stripped the text of the undefined terminology ‘excesses of sects’ and replaced it with calls for child protection laws to be applied even-handedly to all situations with no religious or other groups singled out for special investigation as prejudicially presumed child abusers, as well as reaffirming the right of those belonging to minority religious groups to full religious liberty and especially the right to an education for their children in accordance with their convictions and beliefs.”


Evangelical churches in countries with strong majority national churches, particularly in eastern Europe, have suffered from only limited toleration by national authorities and "a cultural climate of suspicion, which the original text of this Resolution could have exacerbated,” Fieldsend said.


The Parliamentary Assembly is one of the two statutory organs of the Council of Europe, which is composed of the Committee of Ministers (foreign affairs representatives) and the Assembly, representing the majority and opposition political forces in member states.


News from the Frontlines

Tuesday April 22, 2014

Muslim in Uganda Kills Daughter for Leaving Islam, Sister Says

Siblings went to church service after having same dream.

By Our East Africa Correspondent

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 19, 2014 (Morning Star News) – The 17-year-old daughter of a Muslim man in Uganda was able to attend one church service this month before he killed her for leaving Islam, sources said.

Abdul Hakim Ibanda of Kamuli town in eastern Uganda beat Nanvunani Shamimu and her 19-year-old sister, Nawudo Hasifa, with a blunt instrument after learning that they had attended the church service on April 6, Hasifa told Morning Star News.


The two sisters turned to the Christian faith after they had the same dream the night of April 4, she said.


“We both saw a man dressed in white clothes, telling us to go and be prayed for in the church, but he did not tell us which church to go to,” Hasifa said.


On April 6 they attended United Believers Church in Kawaga, Kamuli District.


“On Sunday morning we arrived at the United Believers Church and straight away went to see the pastor and explained to him about the dream and that we were ready to be Christians,” she said. “The pastor prayed for us to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior of our lives. After prayers we then went to church, where the pastor introduced us to the church and that we were new members of the church. The church faithful were cheerful to receive us.”


Area Muslims who saw them enter the church building immediately reported it to their father, sources said. He gathered a group of 32 youths to attack the church, said pastor Musis James of United Believers Church.


“When we saw the rowdy youth approaching the church, the Christians made an alarm and we all left the service in readiness for any eventuality,” James said. “Some of the Muslims retreated, while a few came to where we were and warned us that the two girls should not worship with them, then they left.”


The two sisters arrived home that evening to find their father was furious.


“Our father did not even greet us, but immediately questioned us why we decided to attend the church,” Hasifa said. “We kept quiet. Our silence angered our father. He removed a blunt object and started beating us indiscriminately. My sister was hit somewhere near the neck. She fainted and became unconscious. My father got shocked and stopped beating me. He tried to wake up my sister, but there was no response. I knew she was gone.”


Ibanda wanted to kill her also, Hasifa said, but he was also overcome with fear and decided to perform Islamic ablution. He told her to fetch some water outside for the ritual cleansing.


“When I got out of the house, I decided to slowly escape to the home of a nearby church elder, but I was feeling a lot of pain,” Hasifa said.


The church elder put her on a motorcycle and drove her to an undisclosed town where she sought refuge among Christians.


“She arrived at my house bleeding,” the pastor of the area church, undisclosed for security reasons, told Morning Star News. “Her left hand was also injured. We as a church have taken the responsibility of taking care of her.”


The pastor said that when he mentioned to Hasifa that they must report the case to police, she wept and said, “You people want my father to kill me the way he killed my sister?”


At the same time, Hasifa granted permission for Morning Star News to publish her account of the attack.


“The girl is still traumatized as a result of the death of her sister and needs prayers and counseling,” said the pastor in the majority-Christian nation, which is 11.5 percent Muslim, according to Operation World.


Hasifa told Morning Star News her father would not want her to return home.


“I know I cannot go back to my father because I have become a Christian,” she said. “I am grateful to the church for welcoming me and taking me as their child. I now have a new home.”


News from the Frontlines

Thursday April 17, 2014

Family of Christian Shot Dead in Pakistan Doubts Suicide Claim

Muslim threatened 24-year-old father of two for declining Islam.

By Our Pakistan Correspondent

LAHORE, Pakistan, April 17, 2014 (Morning Star News) – The family of a 24-year-old Christian who died yesterday accuses a bank security guard of shooting the young man dead after the guard threatened him for refusing to convert to Islam.

Sunny Masih, a father of two, was working as a cleaner at a branch of Bank Islami under construction on Nisbat Road in Lahore. On Wednesday morning (April 16), the bank security guard informed police that Masih had shot himself in the forehead with a pump-action shotgun that the guard had left unattended before going to the washroom.


The guard, Omar Farooq, of Khushab District in central Punjab Province, told police that Masih “looked depressed” when he arrived at the bank at 8 a.m. Sub-Inspector Muhammad Iqbal of the Nolakha Police told Morning Star News that Farooq told officers Masih was in the lobby of the bank when Farooq went to the washroom, leaving his weapon unattended.


“Farooq says that he came out after hearing a gunshot and found Masih’s body on a sofa, and the weapon lying near it,” Iqbal said. “He says that Masih ‘looked depressed’ when he reported for duty that morning.”


Haider Masih, father of the deceased, told Morning Star News that his son was a lively young man and had shown no signs of depression. He said his son got a job at the bank a few days ago.


“Farooq was also deployed at the bank around the same time as my son,” he said. “There is no other staff in the bank, because the branch is being renovated. On April 15, my son told me that Farooq had mocked his Christian faith and had asked him to ‘embrace’ Islam. He told my son, ‘You are a good-looking boy, and I don’t like to see you sweeping floors and cleaning the washrooms. If you embrace Islam, I’ll connect you with people who will take good care of you, provide you with a decent job and even get you married into a wealthy Muslim family.’”


Masih said his son told Farooq that he was satisfied with his Christian faith, and that he should stop nagging him.


“My son told me that when he snubbed Farooq, the guard had threatened him that he would have to face the consequences for refusing the Dawaat [an invitation to accept Islam],” the grieving told Morning Star News at the Mayo Hospital mortuary. “I took the matter lightly and told my son not to worry, as being Christians we have to face such people every second day. I told Sunny to avoid discussing religion with Farooq even if he brought up the matter and keep distance from him, and everything would be alright. Little did I know that my son would end up in a mortuary a day later.”


Masih said he had already lost his first son.


“Masih’s elder brother passed away some years ago, and he [Sunny] was our only son besides three daughters,” he said. “We married him three years ago, and he has a daughter and a son, ages 2-and-a-half and 10 months, respectively.”


Sub-Inspector Iqbal maintained that “circumstantial evidence” suggested Masih had committed suicide, but that police have registered a First Information Report (FIR No. 255/14) and included Farooq’s name as a suspect on the family’s insistence.


“It looks like a case of suicide, but we are interrogating the security guard until we reach a conclusion,” he said. “The guard and the cleaner had been deployed at the bank almost at the same time, and so far no one has informed us about any altercation between the two that might have led to this incident.”


But Khalid Shahzad, a Christian rights activist, said Masih’s father has told police about Farooq’s threat to his son. Shahzad said police are trying to brush the matter under the rug by declaring Masih’s death a suicide. Police registered an FIR of suspected murder only after the family and local Christians staged a sit-in outside the police station, he said.


“The entire locality is shocked by the young man’s death,” Shahzad said. “Even Masih’s wife says that he was perfectly fine when he left for the bank that day. She says that he had neither shared nor she had felt any such thing that showed that her husband was disturbed or depressed. So why is the police bent upon tagging the murder as a suicide case?”


The activist said that the doctor who carried out Masih’s post-mortem had also disputed the police claim that Masih had committed suicide.


“Masih was hit on the forehead just above his eyes, and his skull and brain were completely blown away by the impact at point blank range,” Shahzad said. “The doctor said he found it hard to believe that Masih could have shot himself in the head with a big weapon such as a shotgun. This is what we want the police to find out, but instead they are trying to cover up the matter. We believe the police are showing bias in its probe because it involves a ‘righteous Muslim’ who was trying to convert a Christian.”


Neither the young man nor his family has any financial problems, Shahzad added.


“Masih had no reason to commit suicide,” he said. “He didn’t even know how to load or fire a weapon, so how come he just went to the bank and pulled the trigger to end his life? Moreover, why had the guard kept the gun charged when there’s nothing valuable in the under-construction bank except a few pieces of furniture? Masih’s father has told police about Farooq’s threat to his son, but they are still trying to pin the blame on the deceased.”


Shahzad said those who knew Sunny Masih doubt the suicide claim.


“We asked about the boy in his Shafiqabad neighborhood, and everyone praised Masih for his good nature and honesty,” he said.

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