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Militia Forces Threaten Iraqi Priest

Militia Harassment of Christians the New Norm in Areas Previously Controlled by ISIS

International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that on the morning of December 1, Shabak militia forces aggressively blocked access to St. George Assyrian Church in Bartella, Iraq and threatened its priest, Father Behnam Benoka. The Shabak militia maintains close ties to Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’abi militia, which is accused of multiple human rights violations.

The ancient Syriac Markorkis Church in Bartella, also referred to as “St. George’s Church,”

The Shabaks are a local ethnic minority also targeted by ISIS and whose militia participated in the liberation of the Nineveh Plains. The incident in Bartella occurred when a Shabak wedding party stopped at a photography studio near St. George. The Shabak militia forces were participating in the wedding party and decided to park their vehicles in front of the church. For the next 30 minutes, members of the militia shot automatic weapons into the area. When Father Benoka approached the militia and asked that they cease shooting, the militia aggressively threatened him.

“There was a wedding from the Shabaks, and originally they are not from Bartella or Qaraqosh. But they got inside Bartella and stood very close to the church,” Jalal, a witness of the incident, told ICC. “They had guns and no one could stop them from shooting, neither the police [nor] the NPU (Nineveh Plains Protection Unit). After that, they came to Qaraqosh and got out of the cars and danced in the middle of the street and showed their guns again.”

Ramon, a congregant of St. George, told ICC, “We thought that it is a war. There was heavy shooting that could be heard from a distance. This is not the first time, but the groom’s family has connection at the local governorate and that’s why no one could stop them.”

Prior to the Islamic State’s (ISIS) invasion of the Nineveh Plains in 2014, Bartella was a predominately Christian village. The immense destruction of the region by ISIS combined with competing militia factions have served as a significant barrier to the return of Christians to the Nineveh Plains.

“That’s the sad fact,” another local Christian told ICC. “We are trying to stand firm, but we have a speech which says, ‘Quantity wins courage,’ and they have the quantity.”

A Christian government worker from Bartella further explained, “We are not comfortable living in Bartella post-ISIS… Shia Hashd is the top here.” He continued, “Bartella is not a Christian area anymore. The aggressive armed men always send horror inside, we are not able to recognize ISIS behavior versus government behavior!”

Claire Evans, ICC’s Regional Manager, said, “The security situation in the Nineveh Plains remains highly volatile because of a continued ISIS presence and competing militias that act without oversight and accountability. Displaced by ISIS and now harassed by militias, the situation for Christians in Iraq remains incredibly dangerous. Without security and the rule of law, the situation for Iraq’s Christians will only continue to deteriorate.”

Source: International Christian Concern www.persecution.org



Discrimination against Christians in Egypt Reflects Deeper Issues

Attempt to do away with religious designation on ID cards fails.

Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Egypt. (Wikipedia, Daniel Mayer)

JERUSALEM (Morning Star News) – A wan effort to do away with the religious designation on ID cards in Egypt reflects the enormity of the discrimination Christians face in a country regarded as a leader of Middle Eastern Islam, rights advocates said.

ID cards are required for almost every aspect of public life in Egypt, and a Christian designation can cause problems for the approximately 10 percent of the population at police stops, checkpoints, hospitals and workplaces. Christianity, Islam and Judaism are the only three religion options on the ID cards.

“Whenever there is a situation that requires showing your ID … you would be categorized right away,” Sherif Azer, head of policy for the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, told Morning Star News.

A bill calling for the elimination of the religious designation on ID cards quickly died in committee on Nov. 14, Azer said. Committee members in the constitutional and legislative committee as well as the religion affairs committee determined that the bill did not meet the requirements for law – an apparent smokescreen, Azer said, for the real reasons for the rejection.

As in previous efforts to end the designation, Azer said, the main reason the bill died was that doing away with the religious designation could allow a Christian man to marry a Muslim woman. That is illegal in Egypt, as children follow the religion of the father.

“This is something no … conservative or even moderate Muslim would accept,” Azer said. “They would never say it specifically, but they would say it in the context that taking off the religion from the ID would cause chaos and would cause some social problems and will bring issues that we are not willing to face.”

Arguments against the bill included the irrelevant, such as the assertion that religion does not contradict the values of citizenship, and that the ID doesn’t prevent anyone from practicing a specific religion. Some arguments veered into the absurd.

“They said other silly stuff, saying, ‘Instead of taking out religion, maybe we should add important things to the ID like blood-type,” Azer said. “They tried to distract from the main issue.”

Opponents of the bill claimed that chaos would ensue without the ID card religious designation, such as families of Christians and Muslims burying their deceased loved ones in the graveyard of the wrong religion.

“There is no way that families would be confused,” Azer said.

Larger Issue

While advocates hoped the bill, introduced by Member of Parliament Ismail Nasreddin, would reduce discrimination in public life for the Christian minority, proponents say that it represented a piecemeal solution at best in the absence of foreseeable reform that would promote true equality for Christians and other non-Islamic groups.

“You need to have a government that would have a proper vision of a society based on citizenship, equality and human rights, but I don’t think this current regime has any idea of what that would be like,” Azer told Morning Star News. “So they act randomly.”

Campaigns have pushed to remove religion on ID for years, Azer said, including a Facebook campaign in 2013 in which people posted pictures of their IDs with the religion covered.
“But it’s not going anywhere,” he said. “They are not going to let something like this happen, ever.”

Timothy Kaldas, nonresident fellow at the Tahir Institute for Middle East Policy, agreed, saying the issue is largely symbolic.

“This proposal comes up frequently, and nothing ever comes of it,” Kaldas said. “In general, reforms surrounding religion in Egypt are pretty hard to pass, and even when they do … it is often too little, if any effect.”

The state would continue to keep records of citizen’s religion even if the line was removed on the ID cards, Kaldas said, and civil affairs like divorce and marriage would also continue to be determined by one’s religion. Apart from any public records, Kaldas added, Christians in Egypt often have identifiably Christian names.

“Your personal status would continue to be governed by your religious affiliation,” Kaldas said.

Religion is also often required on forms for organizations like sports clubs and universities, according to Ishak Ibrahim, a human rights researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

“There is a great need for a commission to stand up against and prevent religious discrimination and help victims of discrimination in all its forms,” Ibrahim said.

The Coptic Church itself advocates, to some extent, for identification by religion, Kaldas said.

“The view of the church is that if you’re a member of the Coptic community, your personal status law should be governed by church law,” Kaldas said.

Churches also use ID as a safety measure, particularly after attacks, Kaldas said, when a church might check the ID of those entering the building to make sure they are Christian.

Christians in Egypt and elsewhere face greater challenges than the ID card issue, he said. In Egypt they face discriminatory laws in building and maintaining houses of worship, which give Muslims a pretext to attack the structures, Kaldas said.

The attackers are not properly prosecuted under the law, he added, but rather the matters go to informal “reconciliation” meetings in which community elders gather to discuss a compromise – usually ending in Christians losing their worship rights.

“So it creates this air of impunity around attacking churches,” Kaldas said.

A church building law passed in 2016 with the hope that it would bring some equality to Christians, but in the end, it was badly written, implemented poorly and therefore perpetuated many of the discriminatory policies, he said.

The ineffective law is just another example of unmet promises from the government regarding equality, Azer said.

“In practice it is just sweet talk, and there is nothing on the ground happening,” Azer said.

Although the Egyptian constitution guarantees freedom of expression and belief, security agents from the Ministry of the Interior routinely harass and arrest converts who are suspected of leaving Islam.

In 2016, during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, Al-Azhar Mosque’s Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayyib, arguably the most respected Islamic scholar in the world, said during a daily TV program that leaving Islam was “treason” and that apostates should be executed.

“The penalty for an open apostate, departing from the community, is well stipulated in sharia,” El-Tayyib said. “An apostate must be pressed upon to repent within a variable period of time or be killed.”

A Nov. 2 terrorist attack in which 9 Christians were killed by Islamic militants on their way to a monastery underlined for Christians the lack of protections they receive from the government, Azer said.

“It happened exactly the same way the year before, almost at the same place,” Azer said of the attack.

Another problem, according to Kaldas, is the lack of representation of Christians in government positions. While Christians serve in parliament and other government offices, important ministry positions, such as in the defense, interior, production and foreign ministries, never go to Egyptian Christians, he said.

“In terms of political power, their [Christian] access is quite limited, and that has been the case for decades,” Kaldas said.

People of all religions, he added, are growing disillusioned with the regime due to economic challenges, inflation and a lack of due process. A working-class Coptic Christian, Kaldas said, has more in common with a working-class Muslim than with a wealthy Christian, so good reforms would address both economic and religious inequality.

“Fundamentally most of the problems Christians face in Egypt are the problems all Egyptians face in Egypt,” Kaldas said. “Their lived experiences are not that different than most Egyptians.”

Needed Reform

True equality for Christians would come down to the second article of the constitution, which states that sharia (Islamic law) is the source of legislation in Egypt, Azer said.

“If your dream is a secular state with real citizenship, this is the first thing that you would go for as a drastic change in legislation,” Azer said.

Kaldas agreed, adding that so far the constitution only recognizes the “people of the book,” who ascribe to Islam, Judaism and Christianity, while the non-religious and adherents of other religions like the Baha’i must forego an ID altogether or concede to identify with one of the approved religions.

“A much more fundamental improvement for everyone would be for the state to get out of the business of regulating citizens based on religion,” Kaldas said. “This is a pipe dream for me at this point.”
If you would like to help persecuted Christians, visit https://morningstarnews.org/resources/aid-agencies/ for a list of organizations that can orient you on how to get involved.

Source: Morning Star News



Pastor and Five Evangelists Arrested for Preaching in Uganda

Local Muslim Community Complains to Police, Leading to Arrest

International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that on Saturday, November 24, Pastor Tom Palapande and his team of five evangelists were arrested in eastern Uganda. Local Muslims reported to the Ugandan police that the Christians were using the Quran to undermine the prophet Muhammad and people of the Islamic faith.

“The Muslims came in the company of their Sheikhs and disrupted our open-air market preaching as the police watched. We were then arrested and taken to Soronko district police headquarters for questioning. We were charged with causing public disturbance and inciting violence, offenses [to which] we responded not guilty. The police locked us up from Saturday to Monday so as to investigate the matter,” Pastor Tom told ICC following his release.

He added, “We were not causing any violence. We are evangelists known across eastern Uganda for…answering questions on Islam and Christianity. When the Sheikhs fail to answer questions, they usually turn their disappointment to us because we know how to handle the Quran and the Bible. We also hold public debates with them and they hate us because, through our ministry, many Muslims have converted to Christianity.”

On Sunday, members of Pastor Tom’s church were praying for him and the other evangelists. “We missed church service for the first time this year. The church was praying for us, and on Monday we were released, but with conditions: not to hold and discuss the Quran,” Pastor Tom continued.

The arrest and resulting detention have not discouraged Pastor Tom from preaching the Gospel. Pastor Tom stated, “We keep doing this because it is a command from our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul and Silas risked their lives for the name of Jesus; so do we. The danger will not keep us quiet because how shall they hear unless someone preaches to them?”

This past June, Pastor Tom was attacked in a stoning while preaching in Kuwait, where the population is approximately 95% Muslim. As a result, he sustained an injury to his forehead. “The injury almost blinded me, but [I was saved] thanks to my small local church that contributed some little money for me to seek treatment,” the pastor remarked.

Pastor Tom concluded, “The biggest challenge is having evangelical churches and pastors partnering with us. Many pastors watch from a distance due to the threat of being killed or their churches burnt.”

Nathan Johnson, ICC’s Regional Manager, said, “These kind of attacks on Christians in East Africa are becoming increasingly common. The Ugandan government must ensure that these men have the right to spread their message to anyone. The government must ensure that the rights of Christians are protected equally.”

Source: International Christian Concern



Catholic Priest killed by Cameroonian army says Bishop

Bishop Andrew Nkea, of Mamfe Diocese, Cameroon, has declared that Fr. Cosmas Omboto Ondari, a Mill Hill Kenyan missionary, “was killed by Government Soldiers (Gendarmerie Nationale), who were shooting at random from their passing vehicle,” on Wednesday 21 November, in front of the Church of the Parish of St. Martin of Tours, Kembong, at about 3:00 pm, Bishop Nkea said.

The Mill Hill Missionaries’ website confirmed the Bishop’s claim saying, “Cosmas was standing outside his Church while meeting (with internally displaced persons). At that moment soldiers entered the Church compound at high speed in an army vehicle. As they drove by, they started shooting. At this, the refugees fled into the Church. Cosmas was still outside when he was hit in the thigh and chest. He was taken to a hospital, but on arrival there (was) pronounced dead.”

Conflict broke out in Cameroon, a country of about 25 million people, divided between predominantly French speaking southern region and English speaking northern region. The English speaking region, accusing the government of President Biya of maltreatment and marginalization demanded for independence of the northern region they call Ambazonia. Hundreds of people have been killed in the ongoing fight. Kembong, a village of more than 5000 people, was attacked in December 2017 and many houses were burnt down. The village was almost completely abandoned.

Fr. Ondari and his Parish Priest, Fr. Tiberius Vouni, had decided to go back to Kembong, in April 2018, “in a bid to give hope to the desperate population, many of whom were living in the bushes in horrendous conditions,” so he could be with the people and encourage them. “It was in this context that Fr. Ondari was brutally and recklessly murdered,” Bishop Nkea said.

Bishop Nkea at scene of shooting

“I visited Kembong Parish on Thursday 22 November 2018, and I personally counted 21 Bullet holes made on the Church building of Kembong where at the time, the priest, the Catechist and many Christians were carrying out various activities in the Mission compound. The blood of the murdered priest was still clearly seen on the cemented entrance to the Church just at the door. He died right in the house of God, and it is our prayer that the God whom he served so well will welcome him into his eternal kingdom, Nkea said.

Colonel Didier Badjeck of the Defence Ministry denied any government involvement. “The Man of God was not killed by the Cameroon military. Preliminary investigations show that Father Cosmas Ondari was shot by assailants dressed in combat outfit,” Badjeck added that the government will “have the first elements of an inquiry and we shall communicate them as soon as possible.”

The Defense minister, Joseph Beti Assomo, in a statement, blamed the separatist army claiming that “preliminary investigations reveal that the authors of this criminal act did this to discredit the defense and security forces.”

A local source however told AFP that there were “no ‘Amba Boys’ (separatists army) in Kembong” at the time of the murder.”

“The forces of evil are on a rampage against the Church of God, but as Christians, we believe in the promise of Christ that the gates of the underworld will never prevail over the Church. While we mourn with the Mill Hill Family and the Natural family of Fr. Ondari, we trust that he died doing what he had offered his life for,” Bishop Nkea added.

Back in Kenya, Fr. Ondari’s family in Sengera area of Kisii, described him as “very spiritual… fired by the missionary spirit.”

Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called “on armed secessionists groups to refrain from the use of violence. We urge the Government to respect and protect the rights of all, to address the long-standing grievances of the communities in these regions, including through dialogue, to promptly investigate all cases of violations reportedly involving its security and defence forces, and to hold perpetrators responsible.”

Hassan John is West Africa Editor GCN and Priest of the Anglican Diocese of Jos.



Dramatic flare-up in militant violence shocks Mozambique

An estimated 50 attacks have taken place in northern Mozambique since October 2017, killing 200 people.

In one particularly brutal attack, suspected Islamist militants armed with machetes rampaged through a village in northern Mozambique at dawn on 5 June, beheading seven people and burning 164 houses.

Mozambique Christians in church

At the time of writing, no organisation has claimed responsibility for the attacks, and the intentions of the Muslim group remain ambiguous, although local news sources suspect hardline Islamists are responsible. So far, the violence has been concentrated in the northern coastal areas where the majority of the population is Muslim.

Previously unknown in the region, a rise of Islamist terrorism would impact significantly on Christians, who make up around 52% of the population. Christians in Kenya, Somalia and Tanzania are a constant target for persecution and terror by Al Shabaab militants. Concerns are growing that the jihadi group could be gaining a foothold in Mozambique.

Source: Barnabas Fund