In a year that saw a new level of cruelty unleashed upon Christians and other religious minorities across Syria, Iraq and Africa, one once obscure case of injustice in Sudan turned into a titanic battle that gripped the world’s attention. The battle appeared to be spiritual as much as legal.
1 – Meriam Ibrahim Freed after Death Sentence Overturned in Sudan
As Christians in Sudan have before and since, 27-year-old Meriam Yahia Ibrahim languished in a dark prison of obscurity under charges of leaving Islam. After Islamists claiming to be relatives accused her of apostasy, resulting in a death sentence for the then-eight months pregnant woman who had never practiced Islam, a judge told her she would be freed if she renounced Christianity. She refused – risking not only becoming the first woman to be hung for apostasy in Sudan, but receiving 100 lashes for “infidelity” for having had children with a Christian, as the trumped-up apostasy scenario rendered her marriage invalid and was therefore considered “adultery” under Islamic jurisprudence. Her 20-month-old son and yet unborn daughter would become wards of the state and be raised as Muslims.
Ibrahim refused to recant her faith on May 15. A groundswell of support had risen after Morning Star News broke the story of false charges against her on April 18, setting off a firestorm of international protests by Western embassies, legal and aid agencies and media. She gave birthin prison, her legs in shackles, on May 27. Ibrahim was released from prison on June 23, only to be detained at the Khartoum airport less than 24 hours later. More than 40 agents from Sudan’s notoriously Islamist National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) arrested her, and she was charged with “forging” travel documents, punishable by nearly seven years in prison. Ibrahim was released awaiting trial on June 26, and she and her family took refuge at the U.S. embassy in Khartoum. The wan “forgery” charge wilted under additional international pressure, and after the government dropped charges against her on July 23, the next day she and her family were allowed to leave the country.
Ibrahim’s attainment of freedom was the lone bright spot in a country that accelerated its jailing of Christians, destruction of churches and, in the Nuba Mountains, bombing of Christian civilians in 2014. In Open Doors’ annual survey of countries where persecution is most severe, Sudan jumped from 11th place in 2013 to 6th last year.
2 – Boko Haram Begins to Carve Out Caliphate in Northeast Nigeria
The kidnapping of more than 300 high school girls from the predominantly Christian town of Chibok, Borno state by Boko Haram in mid-April rightly outraged the world and later helped to bring attention to the larger, underlying story: the Islamic extremist group’s effort to carve out a caliphate echoing that of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) in the Middle East. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau declared in an online video that the group, whose name is roughly translated as “Western education is a sin,” was establishing an Islamic caliphate in Borno state’s Damboa and Gwoza towns and Yobe state’s Buni Yadi, including their surrounding villages.
With cruelty rivaling that of ISIS, heavily-armed Boko Haram insurgents seeking to establish sharia (Islamic law) throughout the country took 20 towns in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states by the end of the year. The Nigerian military was often reported as ill-equipped and unmotivated to confront Boko Haram, which has ties to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and some accused soldiers of complicity with the terrorists. Boko Haram attacks have displaced an estimated 1.5 million people internally, with another 150,000 fleeing to Chad, Niger and Cameroon; church buildings that were not burned down were deserted. Designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Boko Haram invaded predominantly Christian villages in northeastern Nigeria and slaughtered large numbers of people, shooting some and slitting the throats of others while shouting “Allahu Akbar [God is greater].” In Open Doors’ ranking of countries where persecution was most severe in 2014, Nigeria jumped to 10th place from 14th the previous year.
In Taraba state, Boko Haram militants in some cases appeared to join forces with Muslim Fulani herdsmen who have longstanding religious and economic conflicts with Christian farmers. Other terrorist mercenaries from outside Nigeria, primarily Chad and Niger, also attacked alongside and/or supported Muslim Fulani herdsmen in Taraba state. While ethnic Fulanis have had longstanding property disputes with Christian farmers in several states, church leaders said attacks on Christian communities by the herdsmen constituted a war by Islam to eliminate Christianity in Nigeria.
3 – Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan Lead to Death and Death Sentences
The Lahore High Court’s upholding of the death sentence in October for Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, highlighted a year in which Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy laws led to the killing of Christians falsely accused of defaming Islam and to death sentences for others. The Christian mother of five, the first woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan, has been on death row since November 2010.
Mother to two children and three stepchildren, Bibi was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, punishable by death though life imprisonment is also possible. Attorney said they would appeal to the Supreme Court, but given backlogs the process could take up to three years.
A Christian couple in Punjab Province incapable of writing proper Urdu was sentenced to deathfor allegedly sending blasphemous text messages. The sentencing of Shafqat Emmanuel and Shugufta Emmanuel came eight days after a court in Lahore sentenced another Christian, Sawan Masih, to death for allegedly insulting Islam’s prophet during a drunken conversation with a Muslim friend.
Shafqat Emmanuel, 43, and his wife, mother to four young children, were charged with blasphemy under Sections 295-B (insulting the Koran, punishable by life imprisonment), 295-C (insulting Muhammad, punishable by death) and 25-D of The Telegraph Act of 1985. The couple’s lawyer, Nadeem Hassan, said the judge had succumbed to Islamists’ pressure and handed down the death sentence even though there was no concrete evidence against them.
Several Christians were arrested on blasphemy charges in 2014, and one young couple wasburned to death by a furious Islamist mob in the kiln where the husband worked before his wife could face trial. Urged to act from mosque loudspeakers, a frenzied mob on Nov. 4 tore the clothes off Shama and Shahzad Masih, struck them, broke their legs, dragged them behind a tractor and threw them into the burning furnace of a brick kiln – even though Shama was illiterate and could not have known even if koranic verses were among debris that she had burned, according to police.
Shama Masih, 28 years old and five months pregnant, and 32-year-old Shahzad Masih, were survived by four children, the oldest 7 years old. On Nov. 2 Shama Masih was cleaning her quarters in Chak 59 village near Kot Radha Kishan, Karur District, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) southwest of Lahore, when she found amulets of her late father-in-law, who had used them in the practice of black magic. The amulets may have contained koranic verses, and a Muslim co-worker, Muhammad Irfan, noticed the half-burnt papers and accused the family of desecrating the Koran, relatives said. Under Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes, intent must be shown for a conviction of desecrating the Koran.
A relative who witnessed the killing said that both were unconscious when they were thrown into the kiln but that Shama was dead and her husband still alive. An autopsy later concluded, however, that they were both alive at the time.
4 – Islamic State Invades Iraq
The incursion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) into western and northern Iraq beginning in December 2013 portended a year of atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities in various parts of the country in 2014. In June ISIS took over Mosul, the second largest city in the country and long a Christian hub, depleting the area of thousands of people given the option of converting to Islam, paying the jizya tax for non-Muslims or being killed. An estimated 50,000 Christians fled Mosul.
The militants known for hanging corpses from crosses and, according to some reports, crucifying people alive before shooting them, also seized much of Nineveh Province, Fallujah and Tikrit. A Christian father was reported to have committed suicide after being forced to watch members of ISIS rape his wife and daughter on June 21 because he could not pay the jizya. Raping, stealing, beheading and burying people alive as they advanced, ISIS was reported to have been funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar while several Sunni militant groups joined its campaign.
By June 29 ISIS announced its caliphate and changed its name to the Islamic State. After July 17, ISIS began marking Christian homes in Mosul with the Arabic “N” or “nun” symbol, for Nazarene, identifying them as Christians subject to the Muslim terms of their continued existence there. Religious cleansing returned with renewed virulence; deprived of their possessions, all remaining Christians in Mosul were essentially deported. On Aug. 7 it took control of Qaraqosh, forcing the town’s 50,000 Christians to flee. Another 150,000 Christian Assyrians were driven from other towns in the region. On Aug. 26, the Islamic State hit Baghdad with a suicide attack that killed 15 people and wounded 37 others – the first of several that would kill hundreds of people in the capital through the rest of 2014.
Overall, the country that once had a Christian population of 1.2 million was reported to have no more than 300,000 by year’s end.
5 – First Egyptian to Try to Legally Leave Islam Sentenced to Prison
A noted convert in Egypt who was sentenced to five years in prison for documenting attacks on Christians won a partial victory on appeal but remained in jail because of prior blasphemy charges. An appeals judge on Dec. 28 found Bishoy Armia Boulous, 31, previously known as Mohammed Hegazy, not guilty on a charge of spreading information meant to “cause harm or damage to the public interest” and not guilty on the closely related charge of spreading false news “bound to weaken” Egypt’s prestige or harm the country’s national interests. Boulous, however, was found guilty of an unspecified charge, likely that of inciting sectarian strife, and sentenced to one year in prison.
Because he spent more than a year in prison waiting for his trial to take place and his appeal to be heard, Boulous should have been released at the conclusion of the Dec. 28 hearing, but instead he was held without an opportunity to post bail because of blasphemy charges filed against him five years ago by two Islamist lawyers.
Attorneys believe the state, in effect, has taken an active role in punishing Boulous for his conversion by holding him on charges past their statutory limit, and doing so without any possibility of bail. Karam Ghobriel, one of Boulous’s attorneys, said there is “no hope” the Interior Ministry will release Boulous any time soon. Since Boulous’ initial arrest on Dec. 2, 2013, Ghobriel and human rights activists familiar with the case have stated that the government was targeting Boulous during the time of his arrest. Up until now the accusations have been difficult to prove, but internal documents of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) obtained by Morning Star News show that the MOI employs informants to follow converts from Islam. One such informant was following Boulous in Minya Governorate when he was arrested.
After being held for six months, a judge sentenced Boulous to five years in prison on June 18and fined him 500 Egyptian pounds (US$70) for “disturbing the peace by broadcasting false information.” The three charges had been folded into one larger charge. Religious freedom is guaranteed under Egyptian law but is limited by various interpretations of sharia (Islamic law), which can override national law. While it is easy and even encouraged for someone in Egypt to convert to Islam, it is impossible for a Muslim to legally convert to Christianity.
6 – Key Leader of Somalia’s Underground Church Slain
As in many cases of the mounting number of murders of secret Christians in Somalia, Islamic extremists with the Al Shabaab rebel group were suspected in the March 16 shooting of a key leader of the underground church, Abdishakur Yusuf, on the outskirts of the capital, Mogadishu. A leader of five underground groups in a country where leaving Islam is punishable by death, Yusuf left a widow and three children, ages 11, 8 and 5; they were all relocated.
Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-affiliated force that has lost south and central territory to the Somali government and Kenyan military forces the past two years, has members residing both clandestinely and openly in Somalia, including Mogadishu. Al Shabaab members constantly monitor movements of those they suspect of being Christians. “He was shot in the head multiple times, so that his face is barely recognizable,” a source said.
Among duties of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peace-keeping troops in Somalia is to support the Federal Government of Somalia’s forces against Al Shabaab militants. With AMISOM’s recent successes, the United States has stepped up efforts to train and equip AMISOM troops with an eye toward squelching Al Shabaab’s influence. In the port town of Barawa in the Lower Shebelle Region, Islamic extremists from Al Shabaab on March 4 publicly beheaded a mother of two girls and her cousin after discovering they were Christians, sources said. The extremists called residents to the town center to witness the executions of 41-year-old Sadia Ali Omar and her 35-year-old cousin, Osman Mohamoud Moge. Several sources independently confirmed the slayings. Omar’s daughters, ages 8 and 15, were witness to the slaughter, sources said.
7 – Islamic Extremist Terrorists Accelerate Attacks in Kenya
Terrorist strikes by Islamic extremist Al Shabaab militants, sympathizers in Kenya of the Somali insurgent group and assailants native to Kenya accelerated in 2014. On Dec. 2 Al Shabaab killed 36non-Muslims, most of them Christian, in an attack on quarry workers near Mandera on the border with Somalia. The killings came after a Nov. 22 assault by Somali insurgents in the same area that left 28 non-Muslims dead, including 19 Christians. Al Shabaab, which has ties to Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for theDec. 2 massacre, calling it vengeance for police raids on mosques in Kenya and Kenyan military involvement in displacing the Islamic extremist militants from Somalia. Prior to the Nov. 22 attack, police raided and closed four mosques in Mombasa that they said were recruitment centers for Islamic terrorists.
Al Shabaab attacked a predominantly Christian town on Kenya’s coast on June 15, selecting out Christian males as they killed more than 57 people. The estimated 50 Al Shabaab militants attacked two hotels, a police station and other buildings in Mpeketoni, in Lamu County, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Somali border. Al Shabaab reportedly took responsibility for the attack, saying it was to avenge Kenya’s military involvement in Somalia and the killing of Muslims. The assailants were chanting “Allahu Akbar [God is Greater]” and killing whoever could not recite verses from the Koran. “The attackers entered my house, took my boy out of the house, then killed him by shooting him, leaving my wife and daughters inside,” one pastor told Morning Star News. The militants also reportedly went door-to-door asking residents their religion and killed them if they answered “Christian.”
On March 23, gunmen entered a Sunday morning worship service in Mombasa County and sprayed the congregation with bullets, killing at least seven Christians and leaving several others in critical condition. Among the dead was assistant pastor Phillip Musasa. Two heavily-armed men wounded more than a dozen of the 200-member Joy in Jesus Church in the Likoni area of Mombasa, where a mosque said to have ties with the Somali Islamic extremist group Al Shabaab had caused tensions. No one took responsibility for the attack, which reportedly involved a third gunman outside the church building shooting at fleeing Christians. Church leaders suspected Islamic extremists had carried it out in reprisal for a raid by armed police on the Masjid Musa Mosque (now Masjid Shuhada, or “Martyrs Mosque”) on Feb. 2, in which more than 100 Muslims were arrested and at least two were killed; most of those detained have been released.
Suspected Islamic extremists likely killed Lawrence Kazungu Kadenge, 59, an assistant pastor at Glory of God Ministries Church, in the Majengo area of Mombasa on Feb. 2 for sharing his faith near the Musa mosque and alerting authorities to security threats, sources said. Some youths reportedly raised the black flag of Al Shabaab at the mosque that day, when the raid by authorities touched off riots.
8 – Harsh Sentences, Torture for Christian Leaders in Iran
After sentencing U.S.-Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini to eight years in prison the previous year, in October Iranian authorities sent pastor Behnam Irani and two other house-church leaders to prison for six years. Irani, Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad and Reza Rabbani, all leaders in the Church of Iran, were sentenced on Oct. 19 for “action against national security” and “creating a network to overthrow the system,” catch-all terms the Islamist government uses to suppress Christians and political opponents it perceives as threats.
When the verdict was handed down, Irani was already serving the remainder of a prior five-year sentence for his involvement with house churches; thus Irani won’t be eligible for release until 2023, according to Middle East Concern (MEC). As part of their sentences, the three Christians were to be transferred to prisons in remote areas to make it more difficult for them to receive visitors and to better hide harsh treatment, according to human rights groups. The three converts from Islam had originally been charged with “Mofsed-fel-arz” or “spreading corruption on Earth,” which carries the death penalty. But those charges were reduced on Oct. 2, according to MEC.
Lead pastor of the church in Karaj, Irani was first arrested in 2006 for evangelizing and holding house-church meetings. He was released on bail in January 2007, but in February 2008 a court sentenced him to five years in prison but immediately suspended the sentence, essentially giving him five years of probation. Irani continued his work and was arrested again on April 14, 2010. Authorities charged him with spreading Christianity, attending house-church meetings and committing other crimes against “national security.” He was released on bail in June 2010.
In January 2011, Irani was convicted and ordered to serve a one-year sentence in prison. But on May 31, 2011, when he showed up to start serving his sentence, he was informed that the suspension on the five-year sentence had been revoked.
Reports of torture of Abedini, meantime, surfaced in 2014. In mid-March, authorities allowed Abedini to go to a hospital to recover from various digestive system disorders; with proper diet and medical treatment, his condition significantly improved. But on May 20, security officials showed up at the hospital, brutally beat Abedini, subjected him to electric shocks and took him back to Gohardasht Prison, where the beatings continued, according to MEC.
Abedini has been detained since July 2012, when Iranian authorities placed him under house arrest while he was visiting Iran and working on an orphanage in Rasht. In September 2012, the Revolutionary Guard arrested Abedini and eventually transferred him to Evin Prison in Tehran.
Previously he had worked with house churches until authorities told him in 2009 to cease all involvement with them. In January 2013, a court declared him guilty of “undermining national security” for alleged activity with house churches and sentenced him to eight years in prison.
9 – Egyptian Christians Targeted in Libya
Islamic militants in Libya turned the Benghazi area into a danger zone for Copts. 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. The seaside capital of Libya and the surrounding area have gone from a place where Copts went to pursue better economic opportunities to one where they go and die; Egyptian newspapers were full of stories of Copts being arrested without cause, rounded up and executed or gunned down at their workplaces in the Benghazi area.
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. He was survivied by a wife and two children.
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. Samia Sidhom, managing editor of the Cairo-based Coptic Watani Weekly, said Copts have always been a hardworking, ambitious people who have managed to survive under persecution. “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,” Sidhom said. “Now, of course, this has changed.”
10 – State in India Bans Non-Hindu Religious Activity
Before a government proposal in India to outlaw religious conversions in December, Christian activity was banned in one state in mid-year. In July church leaders asked national and Chhattisgarh state officials to reverse a ban on non-Hindu religious activity that more than 50 villages adopted. The head of the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), Vijayesh Lal, wrote to national and Chhattisgarh officials that the bans in the Bastar District villages, including some that include a prohibition against non-Hindus entering the hamlets, could lead to large-scale persecution of Christians and other minority communities. The resolutions were passed under the pretext of stopping alleged forcible conversions of Hindus. Belar village banned all non-Hindu activities in a council meeting on July 6, after about a dozen villages adopted a similar resolution in Sirisguda village on May 10 that included a ban on non-Hindu missionaries.
Suresh Yadav, president of the Hindu extremist umbrella group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, or World Hindu Council) in Bastar District, told reporters that more than 50 village councils had adopted resolutions banning outside missionaries. At a joint press conference on July 11, Christian organizations demanded revocation of the bans, threatening to go to court against them. Arun Pannalal, president of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, said the ban was a blatant violation of fundamental rights enshrined in India’s constitution.
“Christians in India are frequently coming under attack from various quarters on the false pretext of forcible conversions, and the state must make every effort to secure the rights of all citizens in India,” said the Rev. Akhilesh Edgar, community relations manager for Alliance Defending Freedom-India and a church leader in the state. “These resolutions must be immediately withdrawn, and the state should take strict measures so that non-state actors are prevented from inciting violence.”
The bans did not stipulate punishment for violation and were considered unenforceable, but they added to the climate of impunity for Hindu extremist attacks on Christians, church leaders said. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party rules Chhattisgarh state, whose population is 94.7 percent Hindu and 1.9 percent Christian, according to Operation World.
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Image Source: AMISOM troops from Djibouti in Belesweyne, Somalia. (Ilyas A. Abukar, Wikipedia)
Used with permission.
Publication Date: January 9, 2015