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Missing woman returns to family that beat her for converting to Christianity.

Rev. Elia Komondan

May 23 (Compass Direct) – An Episcopal priest and five other people arrested in the Sudanese capital over the disappearance of a Muslim convert to Christianity were released last week after the missing woman reported herself to police.

Shiraz Feteh Rahman Bellula (previously identified as Shirakh Abdallah) had gone into hiding in March to escape physical abuse from her family for converting to Christianity, a Catholic schoolteacher said. Bellula turned herself in to Khartoum police on May 16, prompting the release of the Episcopal Rev. Elia Komondan and Catholic schoolteacher Anthony Gabriel, as well as four others over the following two days.

“[Rev. Komondan] was released on Thursday [May 18] without any charges,” the priest’s lawyer Kulang Jeroboam confirmed from Khartoum yesterday. Gabriel, a religion teacher at St. Peter and Paul Catholic School , also said that no charges had been brought against him.

Though the Christians were taken into custody on May 14 in response to a kidnapping complaint filed by Bellula’s family, police seemed concerned that the missing woman had converted to Christianity.

“The security officer who was questioning us was very aggressive,” Gabriel, 41, said. “He said, ‘We know you have made her a Christian. It is all your responsibility, you contributed to her killing!’”

According to one Christian source who requested anonymity, Bellula’s family was forced to sign a statement that they would not mistreat her. “But the document they were made to sign will not grant her safety,” the Christian said.

Confessed Christian

It was later confirmed that police had arrested the two Sudanese Christians, along with two Jordanians, a friend of Bellula’s and another Catholic layperson, because Bellula’s mobile telephone records showed she had contacted them before disappearing in late March.

The young woman came out of hiding after reading in the newspaper that several people had been arrested over her disappearance.

Bellula reported to the Police Investigation Office in Khartoum South on the evening of May 16, telling police that they had arrested innocent people, Gabriel said. “She told police that she was a Christian.”

“Apostasy,” conversion from Islam to another religion, is illegal in northern Sudan . “Apostates” not only face possible legal prosecution but also ostracism and physical violence from their families.

An agriculture student at the University of Khartoum , Bellula had gone into hiding after her family began to mistreat her for becoming a Christian, Gabriel said.

“She came to the church last December and said she wanted help finishing her studies abroad,” Gabriel said. Bellula told Gabriel that her brother had burned her Bible and beaten her after she became a Christian two years before, but the catechist said that he was unable to offer her any help.

Bellula then went to Rev. Komondan’s All Saints’ Episcopal Cathedral, where she told church staff that she was a Christian and showed them scars she had received from beatings at the hands of her family.

Canon Sylvester Thomas of All Saints’ said that Rev. Komondan had been unable to offer the young woman a safe place to stay. According to Thomas, Bellula then visited Coptic and Protestant churches in hopes of receiving help.

“The last time she called me, she was crying,” Gabriel said. “She said that she had been beaten by her brother and that she was going into hiding. That was nearly two months ago.”

A Delicate Issue

With apostasy outlawed, interaction with converts is a delicate issue for churches in northern Sudan .

In response to initial reports that clergymen had been proselytizing Bellula, the Catholic vicar general of the archdiocese of Khartoum , Father Peter Ayoung, was quick to rule out the possibility of Catholics attempting to convert Muslims.

“We are not interested in converting Muslims,” the priest told the Khartoum Monitor, adding that changing religions is an individual responsibility.

“We are allowed to preach to our own people, but not to talk to Muslims or Christian Muslims [converts from Islam],” Canon Thomas commented.

One clergyman told Compass on the condition of anonymity that “no one is in a position to baptize [Bellula] because of the danger to her life.”

“Converts are rejected by their families and some times even threatened,” Gabriel commented. “If they have property, it can be confiscated. Often they prefer to leave the country.”

The high profile apostasy case of former Muslim sheikh Al-Faki Kuku Hassan in 1998 caused international embarrassment for Sudan when the convert to Christianity suffered a stroke after being tortured in prison.

Since then, Sudanese authorities have been reluctant to charge converts with apostasy, but instead accused them of “subversive” or other criminal activity.

Instituted last year, Sudan ’s new constitution guarantees freedom of religion. But the constitution also cites sharia (Islamic law), which proscribes conversion to another religion, as the source of the law in northern Sudan .

“The constitution says that everyone is free to go to any religion,” lawyer Jeroboam commented. “But in the criminal law, conversion from Islam to another religion is forbidden.”