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Compass Direct News’ Top 10 Stories of 2009

ICC Note

In 2009, a number of Christians have been murdered due to their faith in Christ. Most of the persecution against Christians took place in Islamic countries, communist countries and Hindu majority countries.

01/08/2010 Islam (CDN)-The revelation that Islamic militants in Somalia sought out at least 15 Christians, including women and children, and killed them for their faith headed the list of Compass’s top 10 stories in 2009. Following the Somali militants’ ruthless bid to rid the country of all non-Islamic faiths on the Compass list was an Islamist fire assault on a Christian community in Pakistan, the death of four Christians in Eritrean prisons, an historical crackdown in Iran that included the detention of two Christian women, and China again detaining and torturing Christian human rights attorney Gao Zhisheng. The complete list follows.

1 – Islamic Extremists in Somalia Hunt Down Christians

Islamic militants in Somalia sought out at least 15 Christians, including women and children, and killed them for their faith in a ruthless bid to rid the country of all non-Muslim faiths in 2009. Two of the victims were children taken from their mother and beheaded when the Islamic rebels could not find their father, an underground church leader. On Nov. 14, Islamic extremists controlling part of the Somali capital of Mogadishu executed a 23-year-old Christian they accused of trying to convert a 15-year-old Muslim to Christianity. Members of the Islamic extremist group al Shabaab had taken Mumin Abdikarim Yusuf into custody on Oct. 28 after the 15-year-old boy reported him to the militants. Before Yusuf was executed by two shots to the head, reports filtered in that he had been badly beaten and his fingers broken as the Islamists tried to extract incriminating evidence against him and information about other Christians. The source later learned that Yusuf’s body showed signs of torture; all of his front teeth were gone, and some of his fingers were broken, he said.

On Oct. 19 in Galkayo, in Somalia ’s autonomous Puntland region, three masked members of another militant Islamist group in Somalia killed a Somali woman who declined to wear a veil as prescribed by Muslim custom. Members of the comparatively “moderate” Suna Waljameca group killed Amina Muse Ali, 45, in her home; she had said members of the group had long monitored her movements because they suspected she was a Christian. Suna Waljameca is considered “moderate” in comparison with al Shabaab, which it has fought against for control over areas of Somalia ; it is one of several Islamic groups in the country championing adoption of a strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Along with al Shabaab, said to have links with al Qaeda, another group vying for power is the Hisbul Islam political party. Compass discovered an underground network of 224 believers not previously known in 2009, in addition to 74 known Christians. Somali Christians are in danger from both extremist groups and Somali law. While proclaiming himself a moderate, President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has embraced a version of sharia that mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam.

On Sept. 28, a leader of Islamic extremist al Shabaab militia in Lower Juba identified only as Sheikh Arbow shot to death 46-year-old Mariam Muhina Hussein in Marerey village after discovering she had six Bibles. On Sept. 15, al Shabaab militants shot 69-year-old Omar Khalafe at a checkpoint they controlled 10 kilometers (six miles) from Merca after discovering that he was transporting Bibles. On Aug. 18 al Shabaab extremists shot and killed 41-year-old Ahmed Matan in Bulahawa, near the Somali border with Kenya . In Mahadday Weyne, 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Mogadishu , al Shabaab Islamists on July 20 shot to death another convert from Islam, Mohammed Sheikh Abdiraman. On Feb. 21 al Shabaab militants beheaded two young boys in Somalia because their Christian father refused to divulge information about a church leader. The extremists also reportedly beheaded seven Christians on July 10; Reuters reported that they were killed in Baidoa for being Christians and “spies.”

*** A photo of Omar Khalafe is available electronically. Contact Compass Direct News for pricing and transmittal.

2 – Islamists Assault Christian Colony in Pakistan with Impunity

Islamic assailants in Pakistan acting on a false rumor of “blasphemy” of the Quran and whipped into frenzy by local imams attacked a Christian colony in Gojra, Punjab Province , burning at least seven Christians to death, injuring 19 others, looting more than 100 houses and setting fire to 50 of them. The dead included women and children. The attack came amid a protest by thousands of Muslim Islamists – including members of banned militant groups – that resulted in another six people dying when participants shot at police and officers responded with tear gas and gunfire. The same rumor of desecration of the Quran that led to the massive protest and attack in Gojra, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Faisalabad, also prompted an arson assault by Islamists on July 30 on the village of Korian, seven miles from Gojra, that gutted 60 houses.

Two Christians in Gojra who allegedly fired warning shots as the Islamist mob approached on Aug. 1 told Compass they were tortured after police arrested them. Naveed Masih, 32, and his 25-year-old brother Nauman Masih were arrested on Sept. 2 and Sept. 7 respectively for “rioting with deadly weapons and spreading terror with firing,” while only one Muslim was arrested following the massive assault. Naveed Masih, accused of killing one of the assailants in the Gojra attacks, has been released on bail, as has his brother Nauman Masih. The brothers gave shelter to 300 people during the attacks and were said to have been arrested at the behest of Islamists seeking retaliation for their statements as key witnesses against the assailants.

The attacks came amid deteriorating security as Taliban Islamists wreaked havoc on the country, and as spurious accusations against Christians under Pakistan ’s notorious “blasphemy” laws spread at feverish rate. A 22-year-old Christian was allegedly tortured to death while in custody in Sialkot on a charge of blaspheming the Quran. Area Christians suspect police killed Robert Danish, nicknamed “Fanish” or “Falish” by friends, by torturing him to death on Sept. 15 after the mother of his Muslim girlfriend contrived a charge against him of desecrating Islam’s scripture. The allegation led to calls from mosque loudspeakers to punish Christians, prompting an Islamic mob to attack a church building in Jathikai village on Sept. 11 and the beating of several of the 30 families forced to flee their homes. Jathikai was Danish’s native village. Eyewitnesses at the funeral in Christian Town, Sialkot , said police fired shots directly at the Christians, injuring three, when mourners began to move the coffin toward nearby Jathikai. Three prison officials were reportedly suspended after Danish died in custody.

*** Photos of Robert Danish, Naveed Masih and Nauman Masih are available electronically. Contact Compass Direct News for pricing and transmittal.

3 – Four Eritrean Christians Die in Prison for their Faith

Four Christians were known to have died in prison in Eritrea in 2009 after refusing to recant their faith. At the Mitire Military Confinement Center in the country’s northeast, 37-year-old Mogos Hagos Kiflom was said to have died from torture in early January. On Jan. 16, Mehari Gebreneguse Asgedom, 42, died in solitary confinement at the Mitire camp from torture and complications from diabetes, according to Christian support group Open Doors.

Sources told Netherlands-based Open Doors that Yemane Kahasay Andom, 43, died on July 23 at the same prison. A member of the Kale-Hiwot church in Mendefera, Andom was said to be secretly buried in the camp. Weakened by continuous torture, Andom was suffering from a severe case of malaria. “He was allegedly further weakened by continuous physical torture and solitary confinement in an underground cell the two weeks prior to his death for his refusal to sign a recantation form,” the organization said in a statement. “It is not clear what the contents of the recantation form were, but most Christians interpret the signing of such a form as the denouncement of their faith in Christ.” Andom had spent the past 18 months at the Mitire camp.

In September, at least seven prisoners held at Wi’a Military camp died in an outbreak of meningitis, including one Christian, according to the organization. Mesfin Gebrekristos died on Sept. 3 after spending a year imprisoned for his evangelical faith. He left behind a wife and two children.

The Eritrean government in May 2002 outlawed all religious groups except Islam and the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches. The government of President Isaias Afwerki has stepped up its campaign against churches it has outlawed, once again earning it a spot on the U.S. Department of State’s latest list of worst violators of religious freedom. Eritrean officials have routinely denied that religious oppression exists in the country, saying the government is only enforcing laws against unregistered churches. The government has denied all efforts by independent Protestant churches to register, and people caught worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even in private homes, suffer arrest, torture and severe pressure to deny their faith. The Eritrean Orthodox Church and its flourishing renewal movement have also been subject to government raids.

4 – Iran Detains Two Christian Women amid Historical Crackdown

In a growing climate of fear as Iran cracked down on dissidents following disputed elections, authorities detained two Christian women for nine months and pressured them to recant their faith. Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, were held in Iran ’s notorious Evin prison after their arrest on March 5 for “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings.” On Aug. 9, they appeared before a judge who asked them if they would deny their faith and return to Islam; both women refused, and the judge sent them back to their prison cells “to think about it,” according to a source who spoke with family members. “This is something we say in Iran ,” said the source. “It means, ‘Since you’re not sorry, you’ll stay in jail for a long time, and maybe you’ll change your mind.’”

The two women were released on Nov. 18 without having to post bail amid an international campaign calling for their freedom. They still could face charges of proselytizing and “apostasy,” or leaving Islam. An article mandating death for apostates in accordance with sharia (Islamic law) reportedly had been stricken from a draft penal code, but experts on Iran say The Council of Guardians and Iran ’s Supreme Leader still have the final say on who receives capital punishment for leaving Islam.

Their ordeal came amid waves of arrests of Christians throughout the year. Public allegations that detainees have been tortured, abused, killed and raped in custody fueled unusually public fury in Iran this year. Iranian sources said a long-standing government rift between liberal and conservative factions is widening and becoming more apparent. “We have never had such a thing,” an Iranian source told Compass. “All these old problems that were inside the government between liberals and fundamentalists are coming out, and we can see them on TV, radio, newspaper, the public media in the country.” A sense among government officials of having lost control contributed to the uptick in arrests of people of minority religions, including Christians, the source said.

*** A photo of Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad is available electronically. Contact Compass Direct News for pricing and transmittal.

5 – China Again Tortures Key Christian Human Rights Attorney

In a year of such a marked clampdown on house churches that even mainstream media took note, Chinese authorities again arranged for state-sponsored thugs to abduct and torture Christian human rights attorney Gao Zhisheng. Early in 2009 Gao authorized advocacy group China Aid Association (CAA) to release his account of 50 days of torture by state-sponsored thugs in September and October of 2007. He had written the account in November 2007 while under house arrest in Beijing after prolonged beatings and electric shocks on his mouth and genitals. “Every time when I was tortured,” Gao wrote, “I was always repeatedly threatened that if I spelled out later what had happened to me, I would be tortured again, but I was told, ‘This time it will happen in front of your wife and children.’”

On Jan. 9, before state security agents in his home village in Shaanxi Province abducted him on Feb. 4, Gao’s family members began their escape from China . Gao’s wife, Geng He, along with 16-year-old daughter Geng Ge and 5-year-old son Gao Tianyu, arrived on foot to Thailand and eventually were whisked to the United States . They arrived in Los Angeles on March 11 and were transferred to New York on March 14. In his 2007 account, Gao had written that those who captured and tortured him warned that if he revealed their ill treatment of him, he would be killed. On March 25 CAA launched a campaign urging the international community to take action on his behalf. By year’s end his whereabouts were still unknown, although a family member reportedly had telephone contact in which Gao indicated he was suffering intensely.

Gao has defended house church Christians and coal miners as well as members of the banned Falun Gong, which fuses Buddhist-inspired teachings with forms of meditation. Gao’s suffering in 2007 followed an open letter he wrote to the U.S. Congress describing China ’s torture of Falun Gong members. Persecution of Christian house churches in towns and villages is “no different from the disaster suffered by Falun Gong practitioners,” he wrote. “In my hometown, a small county, the number of arrested, detained, and robbed family church members each year is far beyond persecuted Falun Gong practitioners, and this illegal persecution has been going on for a long time.”

The abduction of Gao came amid one of the most severe crackdowns in recent years, advocacy groups said. Bypassing the court system, on Nov. 30 China arbitrarily sentenced five leaders of the Fushan Church in Linfen City , Shanxi Province to re-education labor camps for two years, according to CAA. The five leaders were accused of “gathering people to disturb the public order” after they organized a prayer rally of 1,000 people the day after military police and others attacked their church members and building on Sept. 13.

On Nov. 25 a Chinese court sentenced five house church leaders to three to seven years in prison after they were arrested en route to Beijing to file a complaint about an attack on their church. The Sept. 13 attack on the Fushan Church branch congregation in Linfen involved some 400 uniformed police and civilians bearing shovels, batons, bricks, iron hooks and other weapons beating members of the church who were sleeping at the nearly finished factory building used as a worship site. With several Fushan County officials involved in the attack, more than 30 Christians were seriously injured among the 100 Christians who were hurt, CAA reported. The five pastors sentenced on Nov. 25 were arrested on Sept. 25 without a warrant, according to CAA. Yang Rongli was sent to prison for seven years for “illegally occupying farming land” and “disturbing transportation order by gathering masses.” She and four other pastors were sentenced at the People’s Court of Raodu district, Linfen City , Shanxi Province. Yang’s husband, Wang Xiaoguang, was handed a sentence of three years on the charge of “illegally occupying farming land.” Cui Jiaxing was sentenced to four and half years, and Yang Xuan to three and half years, on the same charge; Zhang Huamei received four years of prison for “disturbing transportation order by gathering masses.”

*** A photo of the demolished factory used as worship site is available electronically. Contact Compass Direct News for pricing and transmittal.

6 – Egyptian Muslims Mount Brazen, Large-Scale Attacks on Christians

Societal and official oppression of Christians came to a head in Egypt in 2009 with especially brazen attacks on Christians by Islamic extremists. In one gruesome attack on Sept. 16, Galal Nasr el-Dardiri, 35, mutilated 63-year-old Abdu Georgy in front of the victim’s shop in Behnay village. Other Copts watched in horror as El-Dardiri stabbed Georgy five times in the back, according to newspaper Al-Youm al-Sabeh. As Georgy fell to the ground, El-Dardiri stabbed him four times in the stomach. He then disemboweled him, slit his throat and began sawing off his head. The Rev. Stephanos Aazer, a Coptic priest who knew Georgy and saw photographs of his mutilated body, said the victim’s head was attached to the body only by a small piece of flesh. El-Dardiri then allegedly went to a nearby town and stabbed Coptic shopkeeper Boils Eid Messiha, 40, leaving him in critical condition; he then went to Mit Afif and attacked another Copt, Hany Barsom Soliman, who suffered lacerations to his arms.

El-Dardiri was arrested on Sept. 17 in Cairo and charged with murder. Ibrahim Habib, chairman of United Copts Great Britain , said Egypt has encouraged the type of “radicalization” that has led to such attacks. “It is the Egyptian government’s responsibility now to stop the persecution and victimization of its Coptic minority by Islamic fundamentalists,” he said. “The persecution and victimization of the Christians in Egypt has been persistent for three decades and recently escalated to a worrying tempo.”

Official oppression of Christians in 2009 included the rejection of a second convert’s attempt to change his identification card’s religious status from Muslim to Christian and the slaughter of the nation’s pigs, crippling the livelihood of thousands of swine breeders, nearly all Coptic Christians. The World Health Organization criticized the measure as unnecessary for fighting the H1-N1 flu strain, as no cases of “swine flu” had been reported in Egypt , when the government ordered the slaughter at the end of April. An estimated 250,000 mainly poor Christians in Cairo made their living from collecting garbage and raising pigs in slum areas. The government’s decision to destroy as many as 400,000 pigs was also lambasted by the United Nations as having little or no warrant, fueling speculation that the directive was motivated by the Islamic prohibition of pig consumption and the fact that Egypt’s pork industry is run almost entirely by Copts. A U.S.-based Coptic rights group condemned the slaughter as a deliberate targeting of defenseless Christians and a continuation of a long campaign of discrimination against the Coptic community.

On June 13, a court rejected an Egyptian convert’s attempt to change his identification card’s religious status from Muslim to Christian, the second failed attempt to exercise constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom by a Muslim-born convert to Christianity. Maher El-Gohary was attacked on the street, subjected to death threats and driven into hiding as a result of opening his case. “I am disappointed with what happened and shocked with the decision, because I went to great lengths and through a great deal of hardship,” he said. El-Gohary followed Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy as only the second Muslim-born convert in Egypt to request such a change.

7 – Islamic Sect in Nigeria Mounts Sharia Offensive

An Islamic sect opposed to Western education in northern Nigeria ’s Borno state killed at least 12 Christians, including three pastors, among hundreds of others slain in an offensive to impose a strict version of Islamic law on the country. The Boko Haram sect initially attacked police and government bases. Rampaging members burned 20 churches before police captured and killed Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Police say Yusuf was killed “while trying to escape,” but he was widely thought to have been executed after being arrested alive in his hideout.

Violence started on July 26, when armed sect members attacked a police station in Bauchi state that set off a firestorm of violence spreading to Borno, Kano and Yobe states. Those killed in Borno include Pastor Sabo Yakubu of Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN), the Rev. Sylvester Akpan of National Evangelical Mission and the Rev. George Orji of Good News of Christ Church International, Inc. Church buildings burned in Borno included five branches of the COCIN denomination, two Catholic churches, two Deeper Life Church buildings, two EYN (Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) buildings, and buildings of the National Evangelical Mission, Celestial Church of Christ, Elijah Apostolic Church, The Lord’s Chosen Charismatic Revival Ministries, Assemblies of God Church, Redeemed Christian Church of God, Christ for All Nations, Baptist Church and Anglican Church, all in different parts of the state.

Samuel Salifu, national secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), said the association had lost confidence in the government’s ability to safeguard the lives and property of Christians. Accusing Borno Gov. Ali Modu Sheriff of complicity in the emergence of Boku Haram, Salifu voiced concern that the sect would perceive Christianity as a Western religion and therefore as something to be eliminated. The governor’s press director, Usman Ciroma, dismissed CAN’s claim of complicity by Gov. Sheriff, and the governor denied any relationship with the Islamic sect.

8 – U.S. Christian Assassinated in Mauritania

The presence of an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group in the North African country of Mauritania emerged in greater force in 2009. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, North African unit of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, claimed responsibility for the murder of Christopher Leggett, 39, killed on June 23 in front of the language and computer school he operated in the capital city of Nouakchott . A North African al-Qaeda spokesman aired a statement on an Arab TV station saying the group killed Leggett because he was speaking to Muslims of Christianity.

Advocacy organization Middle East Concern reported that Leggett “resisted what appeared to be an attempt to kidnap him and was then shot in the head several times by his two assailants.” Leggett, his wife and four children lived for seven years in Mauritania , where he directed an aid agency that provided training in computer skills, sewing and literacy, and he also ran a micro-finance program. His efforts to better the lives of people in Mauritania were widely appreciated, with Mauritania ’s minister of justice saying that his death “was a great loss to Mauritania .” Mauritania ’s National Foundation for the Defense of Democracy called for the killers to be brought to justice.

Leggett, who grew up in Cleveland , Tenn. , taught at a center specializing in computer science and languages in El Kasr, a lower-class neighborhood in Nouakchott . He was a member of First Baptist Church of Cleveland for many years and most recently was a member of Michigan Avenue Baptist Church of Cleveland. The last previously known activity of al-Qaeda in Mauritania occurred in December 2007, when gunmen believed to be linked to al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch killed four French tourists picnicking near Aleg, east of Nouakchott .

9 – Intimidation Tactics Eclipse Justice following Violence in India

Christians in India were disappointed in the prosecution of those accused of three months of violence in Orissa state the previous year. Christian leaders in India called for a special investigations team to counter what they called shoddy or corrupt police investigations into violence that killed more than 100 people – mostly hacked to death or burned alive – and which incinerated more than 4,500 houses, over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions. Of the 100 cases handled by two-fast track courts, 32 had been heard as of Nov. 30, resulting in 48 convictions and more than 164 acquittals.

Among those exonerated “for lack of evidence” was Manoj Pradhan, a legislator from the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who was acquitted of murder on Nov. 24. He was accused of killing Trinath Digal of Tiangia village on Aug. 25, 2008. Pradhan was cleared in six of 14 cases against him. He was arrested and jailed in October 2008 and was elected as BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly from the G. Udayagiri constituency while in jail.

The number of cases registered total 787. “Christians are extremely shocked by this travesty of justice in Orissa,” attorney Bibhu Dutta Das told Compass. The government of Orissa set up two fast-track courts in Kandhamal district headquarters for cases related to the violence that began after the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his disciples in Jalespetta on Aug. 23, 2008. The chief minister of Orissa state has admitted that Hindu extremist umbrella group Sangh Parivar was involved in the anti-Christian violence. Attorneys said acquittals have resulted from police investigations that were intentionally defective to cover up for Hindu extremist attackers. In many cases, for example, police have fraudulently misrepresented the ages of suspects so they would not match with those denoted in the victims’ First Information Reports, leaving the court no option but to let the alleged culprits go.

Additionally, an estimated half of the 50,000 Christians who fled to refugee camps have been unable to return home. “Many cannot, as they have been told they have to convert to Hinduism before they will be accepted in the villages,” said Dr. John Dayal of the All India Christian Council. “The threats and coercion continue till today.” He added that most of the more than 5,000 houses destroyed in December 2007 and August-October 2008 mayhem have yet to be rebuilt.

10 – Mexican Supreme Court Frees 29 Accused in Acteal Massacre

After years of legal wrangling, the Supreme Court of Mexico on Nov. 4 and Aug. 12 ordered the release of 29 prisoners and retrials for 22 others accused in the Acteal massacre of December 1997. The court ruled that federal authorities had used “invented proofs and witnesses” in convicting the men, many of them evangelical Christians supportive of the then-ruling party who had land disputes and other conflicts with their accusers – mainly Roman Catholics sympathetic to the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army. The 22 men to be retried, plus at least six others, remained in prison.

The rulings brought to an end more than a decade of struggle by relatives and other supporters of the men. The court ruled that prosecutors violated legal process, fabricated evidence and false testimonies, formulated non-existent crimes and provided no concrete argument establishing culpability of the men. Supreme Court Justice José Ramón Cossío Diaz said the decision to free them was not a declaration of innocence but recognition of “a lack of impugning evidence” against them in the Dec. 22, 1997 massacre, in which 45 people were killed, including women and children.

Controversy over who killed the 45 people has revolved around whether there was a “massacre” by numerous “paramilitary” villagers or a “confrontation” between a handful of neighboring peasants and Zapatista rebels. Historian Héctor Aguilar Camín has argued that there was both a confrontation and a massacre, with some overlap between each, but that they were largely separate incidents. Five confessed killers have testified that they and four others engaged only Zapatista militia to avenge the death of a relative, while the federal attorney general’s office charged that at least 50 pro-government “paramilitaries” descended on a relief camp hermitage full of displaced peasants bent on killing and robbing them.

The testimonies of the five confessed killers – the four others remain at large – agree that the nine avengers were the only ones involved in the firefights, and that the decision to attack the Zapatistas was a private family decision made with no involvement from government authorities. They also agree that the sole motive was to avenge the assassination of a relative – the latest of 18 unprosecuted murders by Zapatistas over the previous three months, according to Aguilar Camín. Government prosecutors unduly dismissed much of the testimony of the five confessed avengers, Aguilar Camín wrote in a 2007 article for Nexos, and over the years judges critical of the hasty convictions were mysteriously transferred to other courts and cases.