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Around the world, harassed Christians are killed for their beliefs
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As Congress elevates worldwide religious freedom into a foreign policy mandate, an investigation by The Oregonian reveals that persecution runs rampant
© The Oregonian, Portland, OR, Sunday, October 25 1998, By Mark O'Keefe of The Oregonian staff
EDITOR'S NOTE: Today we begin a five-day series that reveals and puts into context the persecution of Christians around the globe. Even though the issue has prompted new legislation mandating a shift in U.S. foreign policy, no other newspaper has examined it in such depth. The Oregonian's investigation reveals how such critical issues, even a world away, matter to our readers.
A Presbyterian pastor overlooks threats and builds the first Christian church in his region of Pakistan. A mob destroys the church. Masked men invade the pastor's home and stab him to death.
A man leaves Islam to become a Christian. Egyptian secret police arrest him without a formal charge and
torture him with an electric probe to make him inform them about other converts.
A Roman Catholic boy in southern Sudan plays in the trees with his friends. Soldiers waging a holy war capture him and send him into slavery, where he is given an Islamic name and beaten with sticks by his master's wives.
From Bosnian Muslims to Soviet Jews to Buddhists in Tibet, Americans have long been concerned about the rights of religious minorities around the world.
Only recently have Christians been added to that list.
In the United States, where more than 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, the First Amendment right to freedom of religion is so firmly entrenched it's often taken for granted. But although this freedom is hailed in other countries, it isn't always practiced.
In recent years, an increasingly active coalition led by evangelical Christians, human rights organizations and Jewish opinion leaders has brought to light the plight of Christians in countries where they are vulnerable minorities.
Through books, videos, sermons, prayer circles and Internet discussion groups, this loosely bound group has been alleging that in dozens of countries throughout the world, Christians are increasingly victims of abuse, violence and discrimination because of their faith.
They call it persecution.
The issue made its way to the U.S. Congress this year with a proposed bill that initially pitted evangelical organizations against mainstream Protestant churches and social conservatives against a pro-business lobby.
But in the end, after five months of wrangling, a bill emerged backed by a wide range of liberal and conservative religious groups, from the Christian Coalition to the Episcopal Church and the American Jewish Committee.
The bill penalizes nations that persecute based on religious beliefs. Although the bill covers freedom of all religions, the focus is clearly on Christianity.
When a pattern of persecution persists, the bill forces the president to take action.
Although the sweep of possible redress is wide -- ranging from a mere private diplomatic protest to severe economic sanctions -- advocacy of religious freedom is now a foreign policy mandate.
The final version of the legislation passed 98-0 in the Senate and with an overwhelming voice vote in the House; still, little public attention has been given to the Christians abroad who will supposedly benefit.
Are they indeed persecuted? If so, why?
And what can -- or should -- be done to help them? To find the answer to these and other questions, The Oregonian embarked on a nine-month, five-country investigation that revealed ample evidence of persecution.
Around the world, Christians are being tortured, beaten, raped, imprisoned, enslaved, forced out of their homes and killed -- in large part because of what they believe.
There are also Christians clinging to their faith in countries where laws are stacked against them and their beliefs. Yet they continue to praise and worship their God in the midst of extreme hardship.
Religious intolerance reflects war, politics and social tensions
Still, Christian persecution is much more complicated than it first appears.
It is rarely an issue of people suffering solely for their faith, as portrayed in emotion-charged videos and fund-raising letters.
Instead, victims are often caught in a nexus of social and political as well as religious currents. Around the globe, the persecution of religious minorities -- including Christians -- is an explosive, yet often overlooked, force in world affairs, and an increasingly important human rights issue.
In places such as Burma and Sudan, religious persecution has become an instrument of war. In countries such as Egypt and Pakistan, it's intermingled with social tensions and the perception that Christianity is the oppressive religion of the West.
Governments fear Christianity will inspire uprising. In many parts of the world, governments may have good reason to fear Christianity. History proves that it can inspire followers to acts of bravery, and sometimes rebellion, in the name of an invisible God who is seen as more powerful than the state.
With its biblical stories of first-century martyrs and beatitudes saying "blessed are those who are persecuted," some see a Christian philosophy that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Before it became a political issue in the United States, the mandate to find solidarity with suffering Christians was primarily a spiritual matter.
Voice of the Martyrs, an Oklahoma-based organization, has been focusing on persecution since 1967. It emphasizes biblical passages such as 1 Corinthians 12:26, which tells Christians to care for one another as if they were all parts of the same body: "If one part suffers, every part suffers with it."
Voice of the Martyrs and similar groups, such as the California-based Open Doors, smuggled Bibles into foreign countries and, most of all, established "prayer alerts" for those they found in trouble.
Some religious groups say the Bible commands them to evangelize. The "Great Commission" in the gospel of Matthew commands believers to make disciples of "all nations."
Some even see evangelism and persecution as biblical signs that Christ will return soon. The 24th chapter of Matthew predicts the message will be "preached in the whole world" and "you will be handed over to be persecuted to death." This persecution is presented as a sign that the Second Coming of Christ is imminent.
"A literal interpretation of that passage would say we're almost there," says Jim Jacobson, head of Christian Solidarity International.
The turning point from a spiritual to political issue It was a Jewish attorney and Washington, D.C., power broker who turned persecution of Christians into a political issue.
Michael Horowitz says his awakening occurred in 1994, when he hired Geteneh Getanel, a Christian Ethiopian, to live in his home and do housework.
The temporary domestic helper tried, unsuccessfully, to evangelize Horowitz, who describes himself as a "traditional conservative Jew." But in the process, Getanel recounted how he had been imprisoned for preaching in Africa, then tortured by having boiling oil poured on the soles of his feet as he was whipped by metal cables.
Horowitz found an issue to champion. From 1981 to 1985, he had served as the Reagan administration's general counsel for the Office of Management and Budget. He then went on to become a senior fellow at
the Hudson Institute, a nonprofit think tank that analyzes public policy issues.
He knew how to make things happen. Horowitz fired off letters to 143 missionary organizations across the country, saying he was "pained and puzzled" about their relative lack of interest in coming to the aid of fellow persecuted Christians around the world.
"What struck me," Horowitz says now, "is how Christian leaders were so intimidated in speaking out on behalf of their own. It was a fear that if they did that they would be reminded of all the sins that have been historically been made in the name of Christianity. But I challenged them. I said, 'Would you be willing to speak of your own virtue instead of just your own sins?' "
In 1996, Horowitz drafted "A Statement of Conscience," which was adopted by the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention, the country's largest Protestant denomination.
That and similar efforts laid the foundation for the bill Congress passed earlier this month.
A Jew had awakened American Christians to fight for their brethren in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Horowitz argues that if the United States fails to take decisive action, Christians will become "the Jews of the 21st century, the scapegoats of choice of the world's thug regimes."
Muslims fear stereotyping in American movement
The Jewish connection has not been lost in Muslim countries, where the American movement is often seen as a deceptive strategy to tarnish Israel's enemies. An April 15 article in Al-Ahram, Egypt's largest and most influential newspaper, criticized human rights activist Nina Shea, author Paul (the article called him George) Marshall and A.M. Rosenthal, a New York Times columnist and friend of Horowitz, all of whom wrote about persecution.
The article accused all three of being "American Jews known to be Zionists." Rosenthal says anyone who sees the movement as a Zionist plot is "either too prejudiced, too stupid or too impregnated with propaganda for me to waste my time with them."
Shea is Catholic. Marshall, a Canadian, says "I'm not an American. I'm not a Jew, I'm not a Zionist, and my name isn't George."
Still, the theory has its supporters in the United States, including John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. The movement is "an excuse," Esposito says, "for Muslim bashing."
In focusing on problems in Muslim countries, some American Muslims are concerned the movement will unfairly tarnish their entire religion and make their life more difficult.
"We're heading in a direction of saying Islam as a faith is what we have to fear," says Faiz Rehman, editor of the California-based Pakistan Link newspaper. "We have a double standard. If a Christian country does something wrong, we don't blame Christianity. We dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Was that a Christian bomb? Absolutely not. But it came from a Christian country, or at least a country where Christianity is the predominant faith."
With the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, some allege that the "religious right" has created a new enemy.
"It's the new anti-communism for them," says the Rev. Albert M. Pennybacker, associate general secretary of the nation's largest ecumenical group, the National Council of Churches of Christ.
Horowitz scoffs at such accusations, saying the movement is broad-based and inclusive of all religions, while despising none. He adds, however, that the history of Jews gives him a sympathetic perspective.
"The treatment of these evangelicals echoes, almost to a T, what happened in Germany under Hitler," Horowitz says. "You can almost hear people saying, 'Gee, they are sort of odd and zealous. I wouldn't want them as my neighbor, either. If they are being persecuted, they sort of brought it on themselves.' That is exactly what was said about Jews in the 1920s and 1930s at the Washington dinner parties."
Religious freedom joins military, economic issues in foreign policy Advocacy of religious freedom is now a foreign policy mandate.
"It's being seen the same way as we would see military security and economic contracts as part of our foreign policy," says Robert Seiple, whom President Clinton appointed this year to fill a new position as the representative of the secretary of state for international religious freedom.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who drafted an earlier version of the bill, says the legislation, which President Clinton has promised to sign, sends "a message of hope" to millions of people abroad.
He says its power lies in creating a permanent mechanism requiring the State Department to focus on persecution in annual reports. In addition, a nine-member bipartisan commission, with appointments from Congress, will provide an outside, independent voice analyzing persecution.
Taken together, Wolf expects the State Department reports and commission recommendations to keep persecution in the public spotlight for years to come. Wolf is convinced having the world's superpower keep a watchful eye on persecution will be enough to prompt some countries to reform.
The bill does not define the word "persecution," as the earlier House version did. Instead, it addresses "violations of religious freedom." It affirms Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unanimously approved 50 years ago by the United Nations. Despite protests by some Asian and Muslim nations that the declaration reflects a Western bias and chauvinism, it is still regarded as the international gold standard for religious freedom.
The 1948 declaration says: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance."
The bill breaks violations into two categories.
The first addresses restrictions on assembling for peaceful religious activities, speaking about beliefs, changing beliefs, possessing Bibles and other religious literature and raising children in the faith of their parents. It includes religiously motivated detention, interrogation, forced labor, forced mass resettlement, imprisonment, forced religious conversion, beating, torture, mutilation, rape, enslavement, murder and execution.
When a report singles out a nation for such violations, the president will determine the punishment. If violations are "systematic, ongoing and egregious," they fall into a second, severe category that merits economic sanctions, including U.S. opposition to loans by international financial institutions.
The president can waive sanctions for national interests or if he thinks they may create a backlash against religious minorities.
Congregations unite to pray for their persecuted brethren
While the bill creates an ongoing foreign policy initiative, churches have intensified their effort to highlight the persecution and pray for its end.
In 1996, about 5,000 churches set aside the same day to pray for their "brothers and sisters" under attack. Last year, about 50,000 churches did the same thing. This Nov. 15, more than 100,000 churches from 130 countries are expected to commemorate The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.
Although the movement counts the number of churches in prayer, it has difficulty quantifying the extent of the suffering. The closest anyone has gotten is David Barrett, a professor of missions at Regent University, an evangelical graduate school in Virginia Beach, Va., who has been studying the issue for 35 years, charting the history of persecution.
He agrees it's a significant problem while debunking the widely repeated assertion that the number of people persecuted is at an all-time high. The peak, he says, occurred during the Soviet Union's era of communist expansion.
That, however, is no consolation to Christians such as Mustapha el-Sharkawy, who spent 10 months in an Egyptian prison after he converted to Christianity.
"There is persecution," Sharkawy says. "You should not exaggerate it, as some people do. You should also not deny it, as some people do."
The nation's religious minorities, subjected to abductions, church burnings and murder, find little recourse in a country that treats them as second-class citizens
Sunday, October 25 1998
By Mark O'Keefe of The Oregonian staff
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan -- According to the law, no one should have been able to take Seema and Khushi Masih's three daughters away from them.
According to the law, all parents in Pakistan -- including Christian parents such as the Masihs -- have the right to raise their children in their own faith.
But the law isn't always followed in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Particularly when it comes to Christians.
The girls were taken Jan. 25 by the family's landlady and her husband with police escorts. The couple contended that the children had converted to Islam and should no longer remain in a Christian home. The
Masihs maintain that their daughters are still Christians, no matter what anyone says, and that even if they did convert to Islam, they should stay with their parents.
But 14-year-old Nadia, 11-year-old Nyla and 9-year-old Nabila are gone, and it's unclear whether they'll ever be allowed to return home.
The city magistrate overseeing the case admits he decided against the Christians not on the basis of law but on public sentiment and a concern that he could have a religious riot on his hands.
"Legally speaking, they should have been given to their parents," says Kamran Abdullah Siddiqi, leaning back in a cushioned chair in his office, where two armed policeman sit against a wall.
But Siddiqi says if he did that, "Some crazy person would come and say these are the children of Islam. They'd say we're going to chop you. We're going to shoot you. We're going to -- what did the KKK used to say in America? -- lynch you."
Article 36 of Pakistan's Constitution promises to safeguard the rights and interests of religious minorities. But human rights organizations say that's not happening. The U.S. State Department agrees, citing a government-fostered "atmosphere of religious intolerance" that has led to violence against religious minorities. In Pakistan, 97 percent of the population is Muslim; the rest is made up mostly of Christians but also of Hindus, Buddhists and other groups.
Partly at the prodding of concerned American Christian groups, the U.S. Congress earlier this month passed legislation requiring the president to take action against nations that engage in a pattern of religious persecution.
In the 1980s, the United States gave Pakistan billions of dollars for economic development. But in recent years, concern that Pakistan was developing a nuclear bomb has prompted sanctions, slashing aid to the millions of dollars, most of it for humanitarian, food and counter-narcotics efforts. Pakistan's decision to test nuclear weapons in May further cooled U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Pakistan's pattern of religious persecution, documented for years in State Department reports, could lead to further sanctions.
Legal protections fall far short when it comes to Christians David Forte, a professor at Cleveland State University and an expert on Islamic law who testified before Congress, says Pakistani Christians encounter the same institutionalized injustice African Americans experienced before civil rights.
"In both instances," he says, "the minority is disenfranchised. It has no effective vote. It is subject to a legal system arrayed against it. And arbitrary violence against it goes unpunished."
Glynn L. Wood, a professor at the Monterey (Calif.) Institute of International tudies who has studied Pakistan for 30 years, says general social turmoil contributes to the problem. "The Pakistani Christians are right in saying that when their people are murdered, justice is not being pursued vigorously," he says. "But it's not being pursued vigorously for the rest of the population as well. It's very, very lawless. Pakistan has always been somewhat lawless around its frontiers, but now the rest of the country is going that way. It's a mess."
Amnesty International says Pakistan shows "complete disregard for the rule of law."
Even some representatives of the government agree. Ahmed Balal, deputy director of the new human rights department of Pakistan's ministry of law and justice in Lahore, holds up an evening newspaper chronicling a typical day in Pakistan and summarizes the articles: "Federal minister and provincial adviser beaten with shoes by disgruntled crowd"; "24 women injured during political rally"; "Five people murdered in Lahore"; "Ten party members killed in Karachi"; "Crowd charged by baton-wielding police in Islamabad"; "Deputy superintendent of police fired upon."
His point: that everyone -- not just Christians -- has something to fear in Pakistan.
"Compare a Christian with a Muslim citizen of this country," Balal says. "Is he any less protected? The majority of the people are unprotected. Everyone is unprotected."
Yet Christians in Pakistan say they are protected even less.
"We are unequals among equals," says M.L. Shahani, who, until he left the bench earlier this year, was Pakistan's only Christian judge.
"We are being treated as second-class citizens," says Bishop-elect Inayat Ejaz of the Church of Pakistan, a Protestant denomination made up of Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and members of the Church of Scotland.
Pakistan wrestles with Islam's role in its identity, laws Pakistan came into being in 1947 through the partition of British India. For half a century, the nation has grappled with a fundamental question: Is Pakistan to be a state for Muslims or an Islamic state?
Is it to be a nation that celebrates its Islamic identity, while still giving equal rights to adherents of other religions? Or will it be a nation like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan that follows Shari'a law, merging religion and state through the teachings of the prophet Mohammed, as interpreted by Islamic scholars?
Shari'a law has no separation of church and state, no distinction between religion and other aspects of life. Nothing is secular. Everything submits to Islam in an effort to return to a religious, and presumably more perfect, society. In some countries, Shari'a law has led to punishing thieves with amputations and adulterers with floggings.
Islam is anything but monolithic in its views. Pakistan's 72 Muslim sects have vigorously argued about what the role of religion should be in their nation.
For the most part, Christians worship as they please. There has been no attempt to make everyone a Muslim.
But through time, minority rights have eroded, especially as politicians sought the favor of fundamentalist groups, which did not necessarily represent the entire electorate.
In 1986, Pakistan changed its penal code to impose the death penalty on anyone who "defiles the sacred name of the Holy prophet Mohammed -- a move that the Pakistan Human Rights Commission says gives "a killing edge" to extremists. In 1991, a limited version of Shari'a law was implemented.
Now the nation's Senate is taking up a constitutional amendment -- backed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and by the National Assembly -- to implement Shari'a law more fully.
Opponents of the Shari'a amendment argue that it violates the vision of the country's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who is as revered in Pakistan as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson is in the United States.
In 1947, Jinnah said, "There will be no end to the progress you will make" if no matter what a person's "color, caste or creed" he is seen as "first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges and obligations."
"Shari'a law says no one else should have any religious rights whatsoever because this is an Islamic state," says Wood, now on a teaching sabbatical in Sri Lanka.
"You're here to be our guest. You behave the way we want you to, by God, or we'll throw you out. That's not to say Muslims wouldn't be hospitable to a Christian living in their midst. But that Christian better not dare show his or her faith."
Nation's largest religious minority group is poor, unwanted
Pakistani Christians are dirt poor in a poor country, where the average income is less than $500 a year.
British missionaries brought Christianity to Pakistan in the 1800s and 1900s. Today, no one knows for sure how many Christians are in Pakistan, but they are the nation's largest religious minority group.
Fewer than half the citizens can read and write; fewer than 7 percent of Christians can. Christians often do the low-level sanitary work, cleaning toilets and collecting garbage, that others refuse to do.
Because of this association with filth, Muslims in some parts of Pakistan will not touch a utensil used by a Christian unless it is washed first.
Abduction tears family apart, but officials haven't helped
Seema Masih cleans houses for a living.
She is a Christian woman with 11 children. Five of them are grown and married. Before she lost her three daughters, there were six children at home.
Masih says she came home early on Jan. 25 and was washing dishes. Suddenly, the landlady, Rosina Butt, shouted from outdoors for 14-year-old Nadia. Masih says she looked through her kitchen window and saw five policemen, a city councilman, a robed Muslim spiritual leader, a parked van and a growing crowd of onlookers.
Masih refused to send her daughter outside.
Then, she says, the landlady and her husband, Liaqat Butt, burst into the apartment, punched her, kicked her and threw her to the ground. Then they took her daughters.
Masih's husband, Khushi Masih, was at work, driving a bus.
The police, standing outside, did nothing but watch, she says. "We had no expectation that any of them would help us," she says.
Three siblings, 6-year-old Mariam, 8-year-old Haroon and 10-year-old Akheem, looked on.
"I wanted to stop them," Haroon says. "I wanted to beat them. But I'm little. If I would have been a big man, I wouldn't have let them take my sisters like that."
News of an abduction spread throughout the Christian community in Rawalpindi. The family was advised that its best chance of getting the children back would be to hire a Muslim lawyer.
S. Zulfiqar Abbas Naqvi, a Muslim who says he has received death threats for taking similar cases, took on this one, at no charge.
"Please show me one law, just one, pertaining to Islam, pertaining to the Hadith, pertaining to the Pakistan Constitution, that says Christian parents aren't entitled to the custody of their kids,"
Naqvi says. "No one can show me this."
Siddiqi, the magistrate, says the Butts argued that the children converted to Islam while their mother worked and that they, as Muslims, should have custody. The position of magistrate, inherited from the British, oversees the police and has some judicial authority as well.
An article in The Daily Islamabad emphasized the girls' conversion. It quoted Nadia as saying: "Islam has given me peace of mind and soul." She was also quoted as saying, "My relatives are unreasonably raising hue and are calling my acceptance of Islam an act of force."
Siddiqi credits the Butts with "playing a smart game." He calls Liaqat Butt a "corrupt, useless person" whose "ultimate aim" is to sexually molest the children.
Nonetheless, he didn't return the girls to their Christian parents, fearing an uproar in the Muslim community. Instead, he placed the girls in Dar-ul-Aman, an Islamic women's and children's shelter.
As of Saturday, they remained there.
The girls insist they are Muslims, Naqvi says. He says the eldest, Nadia, has asked for legal custody of her younger sisters because she recently reached puberty.
Under Islamic law, once a woman menstruates, she is no longer considered a minor, Naqvi says.
Complicating matters, the parents have fled Rawalpindi and have been out of contact with their attorney. A priest and family friend, the Rev. James Channan, says they are in hiding after receiving death threats.
The Pakistani equivalent of a circuit court judge is expected to rule on the case. No date has been set.
Observers see pattern in way religious minorities are treated
Wood, the American professor, while not familiar with this case, says the magistrate's handling of it is consistent with other cases he has studied.
The goal is "keeping a lid on" social unrest, not administering justice, he says.
"These magistrates are not necessarily sympathetic to the extremists," Wood says. "They're generally nice people you and I would like to sit with and talk to. But they're just holding on by their fingernails. They are working in a system that can't support them politically when it comes to religious minorities."
Asma Jehangir, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says that she thinks things are getting worse, not better, for Christians.
"They are just surviving," she says. "Incidents are increasing. Insecurities are increasing. You have legislation that is discriminatory. You have court judgments that are biased. It's not just that people are socially discriminated against now," she says. "It's persecution."
As a result, Jehangir says, stickers have appeared on buses, cars and walls in her hometown of Lahore, with the message "find her and kill her." A practicing Muslim, and an attorney, Jehangir said the police don't offer her protection. She defends Christians, she says, because "justice must be given to all."
Blasphemy harshly punished, sometimes with death sentences
Under the blasphemy law, a mere complaint by a private citizen can result in an arrest without a warrant, even if there is no evidence. Bail is often hard to obtain or not granted at all.
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto tried to amend the law but backed away when radical Islamic groups called for the death of anyone supporting change.
According to Compass Direct, an American-based Christian news service that monitors worldwide religious persecution, more than a dozen people have been jailed on blasphemy charges in the past seven years. No one has been executed, though four have been sentenced to death and five have been killed while in custody, the organization says.
In April, a young Pakistani Christian, Ayub Masih, was condemned to death for allegedly making a positive reference to Salman Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses," which Iranian religious leaders have declared blasphemous.
Roman Catholic Bishop John Joseph came to Masih's defense. In a development that sent both Muslims and Christians to the streets in protest, the bishop killed himself on April 27. Supporters say he did it to draw worldwide attention to the blasphemy law, even though his church considers suicide a sin.
After accusation of blasphemy, schoolteacher goes into hiding
Although only a handful of people have been convicted of blasphemy, others, such as schoolteacher Katherine Shaheen, have had their lives shaken through a mere accusation.
Forced into hiding, she agrees to tell her story on condition that her location not be identified. In 1995, she was accused, then cleared, of committing blasphemy.
As she speaks, she wears a shawl over her shoulders, peers solemnly through black-rimmed glasses and clasps her hands.
All she ever wanted to do, she says, was "follow Jesus Christ, the perfect teacher," by being a teacher herself.
She was the only Christian on the staff of the Government Girls High School in Rangpur, teaching biology and chemistry. But problems emerged, she says, when one school administrator told her she must convert to Islam and another ordered her to allow his relatives to cheat on an exam.
Shaheen says she refused and was accused of blasphemy by several students and teachers at the school. A judicial inquiry was held, and the charges were dropped.
Members of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan attended the public proceedings and wrote that "the false and baseless" charges were motivated by "professional jealousy, personal grudges and religious intolerance." It added, "the case against Ms. Shaheen was a clear example of abuse of the blasphemy law."
Shaheen thought the matter was over. But it was just beginning.
She had been labeled an enemy of Islam in the Nawa-e-Waqt, a daily newspaper. A mob burned her in effigy in front of the school, shouting "blasphemer" and "kill her."
She fled. Since then, she says police have harassed her family. A photograph from her school file has been copied and distributed throughout the country.
"They're looking for me," she says, "so they can kill me," even though, under the law, she is innocent.
"Anyone who wants to settle a personal score, if he doesn't find any other reason, can use this law as a weapon," Shaheen says.
Pastor stabbed in his home becomes a martyr for Christians
In Shekhupura, a rural area 19 miles from Lahore, Pakistan's third biggest city, the story of Rev. Noor Alam's murder and the burning of his church has been told again and again.
Christians here say Alam was a martyr.
According to Alam's widow, Sakina Alam, and his daughter, Shazia Alam, the story began in 1948, one year after Pakistan's founding. That's when Alam's father, who preached the gospel to 12 villages, first talked about building a church for the handful of Christian believers.
Alam's father died before he could build the church.
Then, in 1997, for 12,000 rupees, the equivalent of $275, collected from villages and some donations from the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan, Alam bought a plot of land from a Muslim leader in the area.
In a few months, the walls of a church had gone up, and a door was put on its hinges at the main entrance. On the door, Alam painted eight red crosses.
Three months later, on Dec. 6, 1997, according to Sakina Alam, a mob ran through the streets just after midnight. "If any Christian comes out to protect the church, we will kill," she heard them yell.
The mob destroyed the church.
Alam held Christmas service in his home that year. Sakina Alam says he told the 25 families making up his Presbyterian congregation: " 'Even if I have to lay my life down for the rebuilding of this church, I will.' "
On Jan. 28, he did.
Alam's daughter, Shazia, a 25-year-old schoolteacher, says she watched television with her father that night. Then, preparing for bed, she put a scarf over her head as a sign of respect.
"Lord, we are thankful that you have protected us throughout the whole day. We pray that you protect us tonight," she prayed with her father.
Just after midnight, Alam heard a noise in the house. He walked upstairs and encountered three men wearing bedsheets over their heads, according to Alam's wife and daughter.
Sakina Alam remembers the crimson stain on her husband's white T-shirt. He was stabbed in the chest, stomach and above the right eye.
"I feel satisfied that my husband was martyred," Sakina Alam says. "As Jesus was crucified, and as blood dripped from his head, he was silent. And so was my husband."
No one has been arrested or charged in the crime, but the police say they are investigating.
"This wasn't a religiously motivated murder," says Ghulam Rasul, the police officer overseeing the investigation.
He speculates that the three attackers were robbers from outside the region, caught by Alam in an act of thievery.
"If we know where the accused are hiding, we don't delay for a minute," Rasul says.
"But we don't know where they are."
Police Superintendent Syed Mohammed Abid Qadri, the region's top law enforcement official, agrees. "I have my religion, they have theirs. As far as I am concerned, and this district is concerned, there is no problem whatsoever.
"They are human beings, just like us," says Qadri, a Muslim.
Joseph Francis, head of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance & Settlement, a Pakistan-based human rights organization, says Alam's church was one of four destroyed in a four-month period. He says a pattern of "anti-Christian sentiment" has been established, a pattern authorities deny but of which Christians are acutely aware.
"In present circumstances, we are absolutely hopeless," says Akhter Bhatti, Alam's brother-in-law. "Whatever happens in Pakistan, neither the courts, nor the executive nor the legislature care for our Christian community."
Government soldiers seize on faith as a tactic to terrorize and divide the region's refugees
Monday, October 26 1998
By Mark O'Keefe of The Oregonian staff
HUAY KALOKE REFUGEE CAMP -- On March 11, just after midnight, 17-year-old Sheh Wah Paw and her 15-year-old sister, Thweh Ghay Say Paw, prayed quietly as they listened to the voices of nearby soldiers burning bamboo huts on the border of Thailand and Burma.
The girls huddled with their parents in a makeshift concrete bunker they hoped would protect them.
The flames spread. Their clothing caught fire.
The girls scrambled out of the pit and ran.
Other refugees tried to stop them, to peel off their burning clothes.
It was too late.
Four days later, the younger girl, known for her long black hair that fell gracefully to the middle of her back, died of her burns. Two weeks later, so did her sister.
They were two more victims in a part of the world many
Americans can't identify on a map, in a 50-year-old civil war even fewer follow.
Yet one thing connects these girls to more than 80 percent of the U.S. population: their Christianity -- which indirectly contributed to their deaths.
In Burma, the girls' homeland, a war is raging between a military dictatorship and rebel ethnic groups.
To divide the opposition, the Burmese military regime orders Buddhist monks to destroy mosques in large cities to demoralize Muslim ethnic groups. To disparage Chins, a mostly Christian ethnic group, soldiers marry Chin women and force them to convert to Buddhism. To split the Karens, another ethnic group,
Burmese soldiers torment Christians and show favoritism to Buddhists while attacking refugee camps.
"It's a convoluted form of religious persecution," says Kevin Hepner, director of the Karen Human Rights Group, based in Thailand. "Yet, where it happens, it's systematic and for political ends."
Edith Mirante, a nationally recognized expert on Burma, agrees.
"It's an ongoing effort by the military to emphasize that they and only they are in power. There is no higher power," says Mirante, director of Project Maje, a Portland-based organization highlighting human rights and environmental violations in Burma.
"Nobody is supposed to worship anything that's a rival to the regime, whether it's Islam, Christianity or some form of Buddhism that threatens the regime.
"Among the Karen, the Christians are definitely being targeted. They're definitely being wiped out."
Burma's biggest ethnic minority, the Karens, fights for independence
In 1948, Burma -- which the government now calls Myanmar -- gained its independence, ending more than 100 years of British rule. The Karens (pronounced Ka-RENNS) make up the nation's largest ethnic minority group, with their own history, language, culture, economy and territory along the Thailand border. They fought to have their own nation, independent of Burma.
They are still fighting today.
Their leader, General Saw Bomya of the Karen National Union, lives just across the border in Thailand, where he commands, by his own count, 10,000 guerrillas fighting a war against one of the world's largest standing armies, with more than 400,000 troops at its command. Burma experts estimate the number of Karen guerrillas to be even smaller than that.
Nobody knows how many Karens there are because a national census hasn't been taken in Burma since the 1930s. Most academic experts say there are between 3 million and 7 million, though the Karens claim 14 million.
The Karens'religious makeup is also guesswork. They include Christians and some animists, who believe everything in nature has a soul. Nearly everyone agrees Buddhists are in the majority, as they are throughout Burma.
Bomya says about 30 percent of his people are Christian. But almost all the top leaders of the Karen National Union, including Bomya, a Seventh-day Adventist, are Christians, who tend to be better educated because they attended missionary schools when Britain controlled Burma.
Wearing plaid shorts and a tight green golf shirt that reveals a bulging belly, the 71-year-old Bomya looks like the late comedian Jackie Gleason.
"This is not a war between the Christians and the Buddhists," he says, leaning back on his chair. "It's between the Burmese and the Karen. But they are using religion as a tool to divide people.
"They hate everybody, not just Christians. They're not only killing Christians. They're killing Buddhists as well. But they are especially targeting Christians."
Facing destruction of their churches and restrictions on their worship, attacks on their villages as well as stints of forced labor to help the Burmese military fight their own people, many Karens have fled from Burma. More than 80,000 have crossed the border to live in Thailand; 70,000 have arrived in the past 10 years. The vast majority live in 13 crowded refugee camps.
According to human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch/Asia, the camps are frequently attacked by the Burmese army, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council. Since 1995, the Burmese army has been joined by the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army, a renegade faction of the Karen rebels that has sided with the Burmese army.
Because Thailand authorities do not allow the Karen refugees to own guns, they are defenseless. For many, their only weapon is prayer.
They live in bamboo huts with thatched roofs next to jungles where trained elephants pull logs and other heavy loads. Despite the lush surroundings, the dusty, barren camps have little foliage or color.
Residents do their best to turn their huts into homes. One family nailed illustrations depicting Bible scenes over their doorway. In large, white block letters, "Jesus is Lord" decorates the entrance to a dormitory for Christian students.
Cacophony of weapons rousts Christian family from their hut
For many Karens, religion is their identity.
Kyaw Zwa, 55, says he remembers his eldest daughter, 17-year-old Sheh Wah Paw, praying the night of March 10, just before the family went to bed in the Huay Kaloke refugee camp. As was her habit, Sheh Wah Paw thanked God for the family's bamboo hut during a time when many Karens were homeless and had to sleep under trees in the jungle.
He says he planned to rise the next morning to study the Bible and pray with his wife and daughters, as he always did.
But just after midnight, Kyaw Zwa heard the sounds he had long dreaded, the "boof" of shoulder-fired, rocket-propelled grenades, the "kaboom" when they hit their targets and the deafening "ta ta ta ta ta ta" of a variety of assault rifles, including American-made M-16s and German-built G3s and G4s.
Like many Karens, Kyaw Zwa knew what these sounds meant. Twenty years ago, he lost his left leg as a soldier on the front line, fighting for the Karen National Union in his native Burma.
The family had built their hut with a thatched roof only 30 yards from a Baptist church they regularly attended. They thought that location was a blessing. But on this day, it proved to be a curse. Kyaw Zwa says he grabbed his crutches and hobbled out of his hut under a bright moon, just in time to see eight soldiers ignite the church's thatched roof.
In the refugee camps, many of the Christians think the strategy is to wipe out Christianity among the Karens both in Burma and Thailand. Some families are so afraid that they sleep in the jungle at night, when they think the raids will occur. They return to the camps during daylight.
Kyaw Zwa had dug an 8-foot pit as a hiding place. Fearing his house would be torched next, he ordered his wife and two daughters out of the hut and into the pit. Three concrete rings, normally used for wells, lined their makeshift fallout shelter. His wife, Ma Cho Zwa, remembers pulling a concrete lid over their heads, leaving it open a crack for air. She felt her daughters tremble with fear.
Their father says he told them, "Stay very still."
They heard a roar, he says, their house going up in flames. A few seconds later, they felt tremendous heat -- bamboo burns so hot it can bend nearby metal. Their bunker became an oven.
Because he was on the bottom of the pit, shielded by his family, Kyaw Zwa survived with only minor burns on his scalp, hands and back. His wife suffered more severe burns on her back, arms and face.
Flames engulfed the girls, who jumped out of the pit and ran like human torches. Their father says, "They ran like mad women, burning."
Soldiers demand to know refugees' religion
So what do the girls' deaths, tragic as they are, have to do with their religion?
People in the camps, including representatives of outside human rights organizations, say that in these and similar instances, soldiers appear to use the attacks to terrify and demoralize Christians.
While the girls' parents huddled in the pit with their daughters, again and again they heard the soldiers shouting at their neighbors: "Are you a Buddhist or a Christian?"
This was the Christian section of the camp, but all their neighbors, apparently fearing for their lives, said "Buddhist," according to Kyaw Zwa.
Mary On, vice chairman of the Karen Refugee Committee, and a Karen herself, oversees the 8,000 people in the Huay Kaloke camp. She says soldiers asked many refugees that night whether they were Christians or Buddhists. On said four people, all of them Christians, died from the March 11 attack. About 1,200 houses, roughly 85 percent of the camp, burned.
On says the camp's Baptist church was among the first buildings to be torched. But the Buddhist monastery and the homes surrounding it were untouched.
The message, she says, was clear: "They show that they love the Buddhists and want to do in the Christians."
Kyaw Zwa, mourning the loss of his daughters, put it differently: "They hate the Karen. But they hate the Christian Karen more."
Experienced Burma watchers, including some in the camp, say they doubt the soldiers have any particular personal animosity toward Christians. More likely, they said, is that the soldiers are being ordered to behave in a way that divides ethnic groups along religious lines, while attempting to rob refugees of a source of strength and identity, their churches.
Hepner, a Canadian human rights activist who concentrates on the Karens from his base in Thailand, documented the attack on the Huay Kaloke camp in detail. His report, based on observations of eyewitnesses, also showed soldiers going through the camp, asking whether refugees were Christian or Buddhist.
"If you say you're a Christian, they'll walk up to you like they're going to kill you, point the gun at your head and just say 'pow,' without pulling the trigger," Hepner says.
That illustrates, he says, that few of the soldiers want to kill based on religion. They are told to ask religious questions, he says, as a psychological tactic.
Mirante agrees: "They play the ethnic card and the religion card in an attempt to divide and conquer their enemies."
When the Karens split along religious lines in 1995, the military regime was ecstatic, Hepner says, because it allows the regime to blame Karens for attacking fellow Karens in the refugee camps.
"If you can control religion, you can use it to your advantage, and that's what the regime is trying to do," Hepner says. "They would love to see a full-blown religious war among the Karen."
Christian group crosses border to see plight of the Karens
In June, representatives from Christian Freedom International, accompanied by Karen guerrillas, crossed the Moei River en route to Tennutah, a small village in Burma, where the Karens had a military base.
The trip was risky. Although the base was only a few miles from the docking point in Thailand, and the narrow, brown Moei was easily navigable in a long, wooden boat that combined elements of a gondola and canoe, the enemy was last seen only five miles away.
Once across the border, the Americans, who had no visas from Burma, would depend on the Karen guerrillas, who in skirmish after skirmish had been overwhelmed, though not totally defeated, by the larger and more sophisticated Burmese troops.
Once docked in Burma, the Americans followed their guides along a narrow, uphill path through the thick jungle.
"Just stay on the path, and you won't step on any land mines," said Dr. Saw Pothawda, a 60-year-old medical doctor, soldier and former marathon runner.
Once up the hill, the group arrived at the military base, where it read four rules on a chalkboard sign, written in English.
"Surrender is out of the question."
"We will retain our arms."
"Karen sovereign state must be recognized."
"We will decide our own destiny."
After Jim Jacobson, Christian Freedom's president, met with the camp's general, who sat in a red lawn chair wearing a white sleeveless T-shirt, he was led to a makeshift hospital.
There, he interviewed Win Oo, 23, a Karen guerrilla who had stepped on a land mine. Win Oo reclined on a mat on a bamboo platform, smoking a cigarette, as flies crawled over his bandages.
A Buddhist, Win Oo said enemy soldiers try to recruit him and other Karen Buddhists to their side, arguing that the Karen National Union is led by self-serving Christians.
"They call Karen Christians 'closed-eye people' because they close their eyes when they pray," Win Oo said. "They say Buddhists are open-eyed and know much more than the closed-eye people."
The story helped persuade Jacobson to build a hospital at that site for the Karen and to provide medical supplies. In its July magazine sent to Christian constituents in the United States, Christian Freedom International said "Freedom Hospital" will "provide life-saving essential medicine, treatment, training and hope to persecuted Christians and others."
It promised that "Bible verses will soon be posted on every wall." The board of Christian Freedom International includes Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., who earlier this month wrote legislation unanimously passed by Congress requiring the president to take action against nations that persecute on the basis of religion.
The president will have a range of options, from a mild, private rebuke to strong economic sanctions.
Against Burma, the United States has already taken a strong stance for a wide range of human rights abuses. As of 1996, no new U.S. investments are allowed in the country. The United States has also vowed to block financing to Burma from international lending institutions.
The anti-Burma movement has also spread to the local level in Portland. In July, the City Council became the 21st city in the United States to put restrictions on doing business with any company that deals with Burma.
Because of its religious persecution and other abuses, Mirante says she hopes Burma will become "another South Africa," which eventually reformed its apartheid policy when it could no longer bear international outrage.
Church services, Christian schools thrive in a land of refugees
About 30 miles north of where the girls died in the refugee camp fire, nearly 400 people pack a bamboo, open-air structure with a sheet-metal roof. This is one of several Sunday church services in the Mae La Camp, the home of 30,844 Karens, making it one of the largest refugee camps on the Thailand-Burma border.
Children sit nearly motionless in 90-degree heat with high humidity, seemingly oblivious to a white dog with black spots roaming up and down the aisles, his tail pointing high in the air.
This is a special day, celebrating the opening of Kawthoolei Karen Baptist Bible School. Thirty-two students stand in recognition, the boys in red vests and white button-down shirts, the girls in white robes.
The girls sit down as the boys sing "Stand up for Jesus" in Karen. Such scenes are common in the 13 refugee camps. Nearly every one has at least one Christian school to give both children and adults something hopeful to take their minds off their hardships.
In the Mawker camp, the home of 8,385 Karen refugees, a school sponsored by the California-based Remote Area Ministries provides a curriculum that rivals some American seminaries.
It includes classes in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the minor prophets, the major prophets, church history, comparative religions, homiletics (the art of preparing and delivering sermons), hermeneutics (the interpretation of literature), public speaking, administration, prosperity and spiritual warfare.
The last subject might be the most important, says teacher Nerclay Thanage, a Karen refugee. He says nearly everyone here is a victim of persecution, but they try not to feel sorry for themselves, realizing their real enemy is not the Burmese, but the devil and his legions.
"We thank God a lot," Nerclay Thanage says. "If we think a lot about our enemies or our problems, or our persecution, we won't forgive. And we must forgive. This is the spiritual principle of Christianity. Without forgiveness, you can't have peace."
There is much to forgive.
Paw Lay Lay, 36, tells of Burmese soldiers coming to her door and demanding to see her husband. Without saying a word, they shot him dead and walked away, leaving his body in the street as Paw Lay Lay fell to her knees with her mother and three children, praying: "God, take care of us. Let us pass this time of persecution."
She says she doesn't know why her husband was killed, but she suspects "part of the reason was because he was a Christian."
Dee Gay, 71, says that during the 50-year history of the war, he has been forced to go to the front lines 15 times to help the Burmese army fight his own people. Duties included making tents, cooking meals and digging bunkers.
He says he was often ridiculed by Buddhists used to worshipping in front of large images of Buddha. " 'You worship those you don't see,' " Dee Gay says he was told.
After soldiers broke up a church service last year to enlist his 14-year-old son and several other Karen boys, Dee Gay says he decided to flee Burma for a refugee camp.
Nerclay Thanage instructs his students to sing. With smiles on their faces, they clap and sway, singing, "I'm so glad Jesus set me free. Sing glory, Hallelujah, Jesus set me free."
With little real freedom here, these believers look to heaven for inspiration, as they do in all the refugee camps.
Kyaw Zwa, who lost his two daughters in the fire, says he wondered for a time why their prayers for safety weren't answered.
He says he has an answer he can live with.
"I know now," Kyaw Zwa says, wiping away a tear, "that God helped me and let my two daughters die. They are gone. But they are free."
As civil conflict and famine grip the nation, Christians and other non-Muslims are singled out for persecution in the name of Islam
Tuesday, October 27 1998
By Mark O'Keefe of The Oregonian staff
AWEIL, Sudan -- Geng Kuack Athiang lost a childhood of playing in the trees with friends when soldiers on horseback stormed into his village and captured him. He says he was sent into slavery and given an Islamic name, Ahmed Khalil.
Achol Deng Ngong lost her innocence after a similar attack on another village separated her from her husband and child. As a slave, she says she became the concubine of a master who forced her to face Mecca and pray.
Peter Mayen Akot lost the church he helped build when soldiers scaled its roof and tore down a large cross that was the Roman Catholic community's most sacred symbol. Akot says he watched from a hiding place as the church went up in flames.
Such stories are common in the southern part of Africa's largest and poorest country, where persecution of Christians in the name of Islam has become a hallmark of a brutal civil war.
The Christians don't blame Islam, which, like Christianity, is by definition a peace-loving religion. But they do blame a northern military regime that has turned a decades-old conflict into a "holy war" targeting the black Christians of southern Sudan.
Roman Catholic Bishop Marcus Gassis says the extent of the persecution became evident to him five years ago, when he observed the bruised hands and feet of one of his lay religious leaders, Agostino el-Nur, a catechist who was then 45 years old.
Gassis says the symbolism was unmistakable.
"He was crucified for 24 hours in the Nuba Mountains," Gassis says. "He was not nailed but tied to a pole in the form of a cross, hands and arms outstretched. He was denied food, denied water and beaten with the butt of a gun."
The bishop saw the victim, who lived to tell of his ordeal, a few days after his torture. The bishop's reaction, he says, was, "When will our holocaust end?" In Sudan, the boundary between north and
south has long been considered a dividing line between an Arab-Muslim culture and an African one that incorporates Christianity and tribal religions.
In the first half of this century, a colonial British government channeled Christian missionaries to the south while prohibiting Islamic proselytizing. The two sides have been at war almost continuously since the British left in 1956. An estimated 1.5 million people have died in the fighting.
Meanwhile, famine brought on by the conflict has killed or threatened more than a million people. Starvation took an estimated 250,000 lives in the late 1980s. No one knows how many lives have been lost in this year's famine, but at one point this summer, the United Nations estimated that 1.2 million were in danger of dying.
This is a war about culture, language, race, political systems and allocations of natural resources.
It is also, undeniably, about religion.
Scholar describes attacks on Christians as genocide Bona Mawal is an academic expert on African history and a consultant to the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the rebels of the south. He credits Christian nuns and priests with giving him and nearly all the learned people of southern Sudan an education.
Mawal, 60, has degrees in economics, journalism and international affairs. He has taught African history at Oxford University in England.
He says he has lost 19 brothers to the war.
"This is attempted genocide," he says. "It's an effort to wipe out an African group. That African group happens to be largely Christian, which makes their urge to commit genocide even stronger."
Mawal says it dismays him that more Americans don't see this. He and others watched an international outcry for blacks fighting apartheid in South Africa and are waiting for a similar protest on Sudan's behalf.
"We feel like we're marooned by other Christians in other places," says Aleu Akechak Jok, a former judge in the capital, Khartoum. He is now the liberation army official overseeing Aweil, a hard-hit county in the Bahr el-Ghazal region of southern Sudan.
Since 1993, the United States has considered Sudan -- along with such countries as Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- a state sponsor of terrorism. A congressional mandate forbids U.S. economic or military aid to such countries and imposes a variety of other sanctions. Although humanitarian aid, such as airlifts to
famine-stricken areas, has not been cut off, the U.S. last year imposed an embargo forbidding most companies from trading with Sudan.
This month, the U.S. Congress passed a bill requiring the president to take action against countries that engage in a pattern of religious persecution. Because heavy sanctions are already in place against
Sudan, it's unclear what additional action the president might take.
In 1983, the Arab government of northern Sudan instituted strict Islamic law in the entire country and included black Christians and other non-Muslims of the south in its decree.
Then came a 1992 fatwa, a religious decree that gave theological justification to the extermination of non-Muslims. Gaspar Biro, special investigator for the United Nations, says the northern government publicly supported this.
A northern political party -- the Umma Party, made up mostly of Muslims -- is aligning itself with the rebels of the south while accusing the government of distorting Islamic principles.
Mohammed Abdglrhman Salih, an Umma Party official, shakes his head as he inspects a southern Sudanese village recently attacked in the name of his religion.
"They just talk about Islam to gain support from the Muslims in the north," Salih says. "We condemn this."
Abdullahi An-Naim, an expert in Islamic law from northern Sudan who now teaches at Emory University's law school in Atlanta, says: "To call it jihad does not make it jihad in Islamic terms." He says the use of the term doesn't meet either the classic military definition or the common usage of jihad, which for most Muslims means "struggle" or "effort" on behalf of Allah, and has nothing to do with war.
"Using the language of jihad is really a very devious practice that undermines the legitimacy of Islam itself," An-Naim says. "It's dishonest."
That may be true, Gassis says. But it doesn't negate the fact that Christianity and its followers have been singled out for destruction in the name of another religion.
"How can they say it's not a religious war when people speak of a 'holy war' against the 'infidels'?" Gassis says. "Who are the infidels? The Christians. Why do they target the churches? Why do they target the catechists? These people who say this isn't a religious war are senseless.
"It's religious persecution."
Christian group works to free 231 slaves
In this civil war, slavery is a weapon.
One recent day in the village of Malual Kon, John Eibner and Gunnar Wiebalck of Christian Solidarity International address 231 slaves sitting under the shade of a fig tree in 100-degree heat.
Some are Christians. Some are animists, people who practice traditional African religions that assert everything in nature has a soul. Some sit wide-eyed and cross-legged. Others grind their knees into the dusty soil.
All are charcoal-skinned women and children from the Dinka tribe, obtained by an Arab trader willing to sell them to Christian white men for the right price.
Christian Solidarity International is a Swiss-based organization that 21 years ago began to highlight the persecution of Christians in the former Soviet Union. In recent years, the group's focus has been Sudan, where it says it has bought and freed more than 1,400 slaves.
The United Nations and human rights organizations have documented slavery in Sudan for years. The Sudanese government blames it on tribal disputes over which it has no control. Some doubt that the captives' fates amount to slavery.
In a 1995 report, Human Rights Watch/Africa agreed that the atrocities in Sudan don't fit every definition of slavery. But it asserts that it's nonetheless fair to call the victims slaves.
"They were taken as war booty," the reports says. "They ended up far from their villages of origin, performing unpaid household labor and herding animals; some were sexually abused by their masters."
Biro, the U.N. investigator, says that such enslavement is being "carried out by persons acting under the authority and with the tacit approval of the government of the Sudan" -- a judgment with which the U.S. State Department agrees.
Gassis also thinks that it's slavery and that it's widespread. He says what human rights organizations and media reports often have overlooked is the increasingly religious aspect.
"Slavery is now occurring in a holy war," Gassis says. "Anything they get from holy war is their property, including the human person. This is their interpretation of jihad."
Emancipated slaves urged to pray for those still in bondage
The Arab trader sits in a rickety wooden chair, wearing a turban as vultures and herons circle overhead. He covers his face with sunglasses and a scarf to conceal his identity. He says if fellow Muslims from the north find out he is dealing slaves back to Christians, he's a dead man.
A baby boy, eyes closed, sucks on the shriveled right breast of his mother, who wears two beaded necklaces and a sad look. A shirtless and shoeless girl, no older than 5, sits on her knees, watching the cash transaction that shapes her future. Her head swivels from side to side as if she is watching a tennis match.
In the past, the trader received about 50,000 Sudanese pounds a person, the equivalent of about $73. He asks for more this time. His task, he says, is becoming more difficult.
He says sometimes he stole the slaves from their northern masters. Other times, he conspired with the masters' jealous wives to let concubines go. He says he had to buy some slaves outright, and they didn't come cheap.
But Eibner, sensitive to charges that buying slaves increases the market for them, doesn't budge.
"The one thing we cannot do is to increase the price," he tells the trader, who reluctantly agrees to take the equivalent of just less than $17,000, most of it in wads of tattered Sudanese bank notes, the rest of it in U.S. currency.
Eibner stands before the women and children and delivers a message, translated by a Dinka tribesman.
"You are all free now to go back to your homes, to your mothers, your fathers and your loved ones," Eibner says.
"But before you go, I just want to share a simple message with you. It's that there are many, many people who pray for you every day. They believe God is a loving God and cares about you. Please pray for them and for the remaining people that are in bondage, so they can come out of slavery soon."
The slaves show no emotion but clap politely when Eibner finishes his sermon. They slowly rise to return to their villages. Some have a walk of several days in front of them.
Catholic boy given new identity after capture as a slave
Geng Kuack Athiang, 15, is on his way home.
His ordeal began three years ago, he says, when he and his friends, playing in the trees, heard machine guns. They scattered.
Athiang ran into three soldiers on horseback. Whether they were from the National Islamic Front or from a tribal militia group doing the army's bidding, Athiang does not know.
Athiang says he saw more than a dozen men older than 20 executed on the spot.
He also saw the skulls of children younger than 5 crushed with a tool the villagers normally used for pounding sorghum. Their screams, he says, still haunt him.
He says he saw about a dozen older boys amputated at the arm and leg by soldiers. A soldier put a knife to Athiang's left wrist and drew blood, says Athiang, who shows a 3-inch-long scar.
But another soldier protested, yelling, "Stop. This boy is too small."
When compared with people in accounts compiled by Christian Solidarity International and other human rights organizations, Athiang appears fortunate. He was taken into slavery and forced to look after cattle. His master rarely beat him, he says. And he wasn't forced to memorize the Koran and learn Islamic prayers, as many slaves are.
The Roman Catholic Athiang was, however, given an Islamic name, Ahmed Khalil. According to Paul Marshall, a Canadian scholar and expert on religious persecution, renaming slaves is a common practice that qualifies as persecution.
"To change a name doesn't always mean too much in North America," says Marshall, who recently returned from Sudan. "But it does mean a lot in Africa. It would mean you're trying to force someone to identify themselves as a Muslim."
Bol Bol Makiew, 13, says he doesn't remember much of the day he was captured, but he does remember his master naming him Mohammed. He doesn't know where his parents are but says he thinks he was born in Bunkor, a two-mile walk from here.
When asked whether he is a Christian, Makiew touches his forehead, chest, left shoulder and right shoulder, making the sign of a cross he learned long ago from people he only vaguely remembers.
"My father was a Christian," he says. "My mother was a Christian. So I am a Christian."
Achol Deng Ngong, 30, also saw her Christianity as part of her identity, an identity that her captors tried to take away.
When told to face Mecca and pray five times a day, Ngong says she played dumb and refused to participate. But she says she couldn't refuse her master, who once stabbed her in the right shoulder when she tried to resist one of his late-night sexual advances.
"I am a Christian," she says. "All my family is Christian. I couldn't be forced to become a Muslim."
She bore two sons to her master, she says. They were given Muslim names, Bashir and Ali.
Some see link between Sudan's civil war and famine Famine is a man-made weapon of war in southern Sudan.
The problem is not the land. Southern Sudan has some of the most fertile soil in Africa, if only the people, displaced by attacks on their villages, could farm it.
The United Nations has been poised to fly in food, if only the government of the north would allow them. It's enough to drive David Kagunda, field program officer for the United Nations' Operation Lifeline Sudan, crazy.
Kagunda's job is to feed people, not save souls. But as he sees it, religion has as much to do with the starvation as anything.
In his office just across the Sudan border in Lokichokio, Kenya, Kagunda points to the hardest-hit area of Sudan, the vast Bahr el-Ghazal province, on a map on the wall.
The United Nations first wanted to send food in January, Kagunda says, when well-timed shipments could have averted a full-blown disaster. But the food stayed in warehouses in Kenya because the government in Khartoum denied all flights into Sudan.
By May, the government finally succumbed to international pressure and lifted the flight ban. Planes brought thousands of tons of sorghum, a staple in Sudan, to food stations mobbed by thousands of people. For some, it was too little, too late.
According to Kagunda, the delay potentially cost 450,000 lives, nearly all of them Christians and animists.
"We can't say people are being starved just because of religion," Kagunda says. "But if these were Muslims in the south, all these restrictions and denials of access to get food in just wouldn't be there. Everyone to them (the northern government) is an infidel."
Deng Ageny, 5, leans listlessly on his mother's lap under a tree in Bahr el-Ghazal. He is one in a crowd of 17,000 people, most of them displaced by recent attacks on their villages, making a massive, anxious circle around a C-130 Hercules cargo plane filled with food.
They wait for rations to be distributed.
Deng's mother, Nbuol Ageny, says she walked four days with her son to get here. Once they arrived, he took a turn for the worse.
Neither of them has eaten a full meal in 11 days, and she says Deng, his eyelids droopy, "isn't even eating the tree leaves now."
A Christian, Nbuol Ageny says the only thing she can do now is to stroke her son's hair and softly recite the Lord's Prayer, especially the part that says, "Give us this day our daily bread."
Soldiers destroy village's church, but congregation keeps worshipping Horse-riding bands of militias pour down from the north to attack not only the villages but also their churches.
It happened in Maper Giir, a sprawling village in the midst of some of the country's most fertile land. The village is just east of a railway that connects Khartoum, in the north, with the south's largest city, Wau.
The attack occurred April 4. More than 20,000 people were displaced in the raid, and 436 women and children were captured by northern troops and presumably taken into slavery, says the village's chief, John Aher Arol Aher.
But what struck Peter Mayen Akot, 22, and Samuel Akot Agok, 25, was what the troops did to the village's Catholic church, a thatched hut that was the area's spiritual center.
Akot and Agok are the church's catechists, teaching Bible lessons and directing a church choir in the absence of a priest. When they heard gunfire, they say they ran and hid in the bush, about 200 yards from the church.
From there, the catechists say they watched two soldiers scale the thatched roof, tear off the church's large cross and toss it to the ground. Another soldier then threw the cross into the sanctuary before lighting the entire structure on fire, they say.
Christian Solidarity International has documented similar treatment of Christian churches in other villages. Bishop Gassis has seen it, too.
"It is evident what's happening," Gassis says. "It's part of the persecution of Christians. They want to wipe out even any sign of Christianity from the land. The sign of Christianity is a building with a cross, known as a church. The destruction of the church is a statement that Christianity doesn't exist. It happens constantly."
Though charred pews are all that is left of their building, the children congregate there as Akot leads them, hands raised, in singing a hymn professing, "God gives us blessings." A boy keeps everyone in rhythm by banging a stick against the metal frame of a burned-out drum.
According to Akot, church attendance has increased since the attack, especially among the young people, even though services have to be held under trees. Akot says he is preparing scores of people to be baptized when a priest makes his annual visit to the area. He says some people will walk for two days or longer to receive Holy Communion.
"This has made people even more determined to be Christians," Akot says. "The church is even fuller now because of this persecution."
In southern Sudan, more people are becoming Christians, Akot and other church leaders say, even though the price of belief can be steep.
"Everyone knows that whenever they (northern soldiers) attack a village, the first people they go after are the church people, especially those who wear a cross," he says.
A wooden cross, with small nails where Christ's hands were pierced, dangle from Akot's neck. Why does he wear such a symbol if it puts him at greater risk? He laughs. The question is absurd.
"This," he says, "is a sign of my faith. This is what makes me different."
Egypt is more tolerant of Christianity than many Islamic nations, but evangelical Christians and Copts say they face discrimination and even torture for their beliefs
Wednesday, October 28 1998
By Mark O'Keefe of The Oregonian staff
CAIRO, Egypt -- For evangelical Christians such as Beaverton-based Luis Palau, nothing is as important as "making disciples of all nations." They say Jesus Christ himself gave this command to convert non-Christians, in Matthew 28:19-20, a passage known as "The Great Commission."
But this country follows the prophet Mohammed with equal fervor. It rejects the notion of converting its people -- particularly to a religion associated with the West, a religion, it's still remembered, that persecuted Muslims during the 11th-century Crusades.
That's why the gathering at Kasr el-Dobara Presbyterian Church in Cairo last February was so radical -- and so dangerous. Here, Palau is openly and unabashedly proclaiming that Christ is the way.
The only way.
Five blocks from the Nile River, tucked into a crowded neighborhood that includes the U.S. and British embassies, the narrow five-story building -- the largest Protestant church in the Arab world -- is easy to miss on most nights. But this is no ordinary night.
Worshippers jam the sanctuary and pour into nearby rooms fitted with closed-circuit television. Hundreds more press against a gate, where armed police stand guard. When a door cracks open with the announcement that there is room for five more, people elbow one another and jockey for position.
In the United States, meetings such as this are called crusades. Here, no one knows what to call it.
"There are more than 300 million Arabs," Palau explains later. "Many of them have never heard the name of Jesus in a clear fashion. But Jesus commanded us to take his name everywhere."
For four nights, to the melody of Western songs translated into Arabic, Palau preaches the message of salvation through biblical stories such as the woman who met Christ at the well. "She had an encounter of only 20 minutes with Jesus," says Palau, who often is compared to Billy Graham. "Those 20 minutes revolutionized her life."
Inside the church are several missionaries, including one from Portland who asked not to be identified. He lives in Egypt under the pretense of doing business, although his real support comes from nine Portland-area evangelical churches.
"Souls are definitely in the balance," the missionary says. "A soul is either going to heaven or hell. If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't be here. It's sandy. It's dirty. The language is hard. The food is different. I'd rather be in Portland. I'm here for one reason, for souls."
Souls, however, are hard to come by.
At crusades in the West, converts commonly flock to the altar in a public acknowledgment of conversion. But if anyone converts during this crusade, the rest of the worshippers never see it.
Why? Arab authorities say that the effort to "save" Muslim souls -- though technically not against Egyptian secular law -- is certainly against Islamic teaching, which prohibits conversion, and according to some interpretations, decrees punishment by death.
What's more, they say such conversion is unnecessary because Islam is a more advanced relative of Christianity, recognizing both Jesus and Mohammed.
"If you're a Muslim, you're a Christian-plus," says Mo'ti Bayoumi, dean of Islamic theology at Al-Azhar University, the Harvard of the Islamic world.
Egyptians who convert to Christianity may incur wrath of secret police
But there's another possible reason.
Muslims who change their religion risk harassment, arrest and torture by the secret police.
Although some point to the existence of an openly evangelical church such as Kasr el-Dobara as evidence of Egypt's tolerance, the U.S. State Department and rights organizations such as Amnesty International cite instances of arrest and torture of converts in Egypt. In addition, they allege that Christians are underrepresented in Egypt's government, discriminated against in education and business, and increasingly targeted by terrorists.
"Whoever is baptized will be persecuted," says the Rev. Menes Abdul Noor, who heads Kasr el-Dobara and was host to Palau's visit.
Diminutive and gray-haired, Noor sits behind his office desk, next to a computer displaying Windows 95 in Arabic. Western books, such as "Answering Islam" and Charles Colson's "The Body" line a bookcase. One wall displays a map of Cairo, the other a picture portraying Christ on the edge of a cliff, reaching into a crevice to rescue a lamb. Noor wears a blue tie that proclaims "Jesus is Lord."
Noor says converts he has baptized face rejection by family and friends. He asserts that as many as 10 converts a year have been arrested. Some, he says, have been tortured.
The U.S. State Department says there have been "credible reports" of at least two converts being physically abused by state security officers; Muslims suspected of terrorism are also often jailed and tortured without being charged, the State Department says.
Egyptian authorities interrogate him almost monthly, Noor says. They focus on issues discussed in the church. He suspects his office and telephone are bugged. "When I want them to know something, I tell another bugged person," he says.
Noor says that neither he nor his church shrinks from such scrutiny. In fact, they seem to go out of their way to court it.
"If you say we're so nice, so friendly, that's a big lie. I'm under orders," Noor says. "Am I in danger? Of course. So was the Apostle Paul. So was James, the second martyr. So was Stephen, the first martyr. These are the facts of life."
Evangelical movement helped push religion bill through Congress
Evangelicals are Christians who believe the Bible is God's word, salvation comes through Christ alone, and everyone in the world must hear this message.
The evangelical movement is particularly strong in the United States. Surveys by Gallup and others say about one in five Americans identifies himself or herself with the main tenets of evangelism, though they may not use that term. Joseph Assad, an Egyptian working for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Religious Freedom, estimates there are 300,000 evangelicals in Egypt, although no one knows for certain how many there are.
American evangelicals provided much of the impetus for a bill passed by Congress earlier this month. The bill requires the president to take action against countries that persecute on the basis of religion.
Egypt is considered a key U.S. ally, acting as a stabilizing force in the volatile Middle East. It receives $2.1 billion a year from the United States, making it the second-largest recipient of American aid. It trails only Israel, which receives $3 billion annually.
The U.S. State Department has already criticized Egypt's mistreatment of converts. The issue could become even more volatile if that mistreatment is cited as a reason for a sanction under the new religious persecution bill, which President Clinton signed Tuesday.
The bill says freedom of religion is an inalienable right not just in the United States but everywhere, and it cites international documents to prove its point. According to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every person has an inherent right to worship as he or she pleases.
That right, according to Article 18 of the declaration, "includes freedom to change his religion or belief."
Because Islam forbids Muslims to change their religion, Saudi Arabia abstained from voting for the declaration in the United Nations. But the declaration, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, passed with 48 votes, including the Islamic countries of Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. No country voted against it.
Some Asian and Islamic countries have argued since then that the religious clause of the declaration strongly reflects Western values, at their expense.
"The people still believe that if you are a Muslim, you are on the right path, that it's the divine religion," says Hafeez Malik, a professor at Villanova University and the editor of the Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. "If you renounce it, that means there is something wrong with you. Some will go to the extent of saying killing you is justified."
But the 1948 U.N. declaration is still the gold standard for human rights, creating a dilemma for Muslim countries. Do they abide by the international standard and disobey Islamic law? Or do they honor Islamic law and risk the disapproval of other countries?
"The challenge for us as Muslims is to either subscribe to what we have already committed to or provide an alternative, universalist vision," says Abdullahi An-Naim, an expert on Islamic law and a professor at Emory Law School in Atlanta. "On the question of freedom of religion, are we saying Muslims have the right to convert others to Islam but not allow them the right to convert Muslims to their religion?
Christianity's roots in Egypt date back thousands of years
Even without converts, Egypt is the most Christian country in the Middle East, owing to the efforts of evangelists nearly 2,000 years ago.
By the early seventh century, nearly all Egyptians were Christians. According to tradition, it was St. Mark, one of Jesus' 12 disciples, who founded the Egyptian Orthodox Church about 60 A.D.
It was only after Muslims invaded Egypt from Syria in the seventh century that most Christians converted to Islam. Those who did not are called Copts -- a derivation of the word "Egyptian" -- to this day. According to government statistics, there are 6 million Copts, but Egyptian Christian leaders say that number is at least 10 million.
The vast majority of Copts belong to the Egyptian Orthodox Church, which emphasizes liturgy and ritual and de-emphasizes evangelism and conversion.
Compared with some Islamic countries where no Christian expression is allowed, Egypt is a haven of freedom. Christians openly walk the streets wearing crucifixes on their necks. Many Copts still follow the centuries-old practice of tattooing a small blue cross on the inside of their wrists.
But that doesn't make them immune. In March, Islamic militants wielding assault rifles and wearing masks and military fatigues walked into the predominantly Christian village of Ezbet Dawoud, 300 miles south of Cairo, and shot everyone in sight. Thirteen men were killed.
In February, gunmen killed nine Christians who were attending a youth meeting at a Coptic church in Abu Qurqas.
The Egyptian government strongly denies that Christians are persecuted in Egypt. In March, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told a delegation of clerics from the Council of Churches of the City of New York that there is no government-orchestrated persecution. The government said it deplored the targeting of Christians, as well as Muslims, by terrorist groups and would continue to counter such efforts.
Still, shrill advertisements placed in American newspapers this year by the American, Australian, Canadian, British and European Coptic Associations hold the government responsible. They say that the situation of minority Christians in Egypt is "akin to Jews during Nazi domination of Europe on the eve of being sent to the gas chamber -- or like Armenians about to face Turkish massacre in 1915."
Copts encounter double standard in schools and businesses
Privately, many Copts say their situation is more subtle and complex.
Copts have risen to prominence in some business circles, but of the 400 members of Parliament, only five are Christian.
Christians cannot enroll at the nation's most influential university, Al-Azhar, because it's open only to Muslims. Students say a double standard exists in the way they are treated at colleges as well as in the workplace.
"If you are in the workplace and are up for a promotion against a Muslim, you won't get it because you're a Christian," says a 21-year-old student at the University of Cairo. "Sometimes, though not usually, Muslim professors make it more difficult for you to get a good grade."
Another, a journalist, says he's been taunted by his editor and censored for trying to write about the problems Egyptian Christians face.
Although evangelical Christians challenge the Muslim majority in Egypt, most Coptic leaders emphasize getting along. Privately, some say they fear that making a fuss about religious persecution could haunt them.
If the choice is between a less-than-perfect government somewhat tolerant of Christians and a radical Islamic movement that wants to submit the entire society to a strict Muslim code, many Christians say they will take the former.
"It's not a matter of Christianity vs. Islam but a question of who will rule the country, the civil government we have or an Islamic regime?" says the Rev. Safwat N. el-Baiady, president of the Egyptian Council of Protestant Churches. "It's wise that the church support the government; otherwise we'll face an Islamic regime, which isn't good for the church."
The Orthodox patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, has taken a conciliatory approach.
"Conflict is not good for us, and we cannot gain anything through conflict," Shenouda told foreign reporters at a recent news conference.
Most Copts have followed the pope's lead.
"We live in a better situation than any other religious minority in the world," says Nasim Mijalli, a literary critic and one of a handful of Christian professors at the University of Cairo.
"Historically, we have lived in peace with the Muslims for hundreds of years.
"I don't feel Christians are persecuted in this country. There are some problems, some troubles, but there is no persecution at all."
Egyptian thinks his arrest stemmed from his conversion
An indentation just above the bridge of Mustapha el-Sharkawy's nose tells a different story.
The scar developed when police put a blindfold over Sharkawy'sface, then tied a rope around it, says the 38-year-old father of two.
That was in 1991, during a 10-month prison stay. When the rope was finally loosened after two weeks, the blindfold stuck to Sharkawy's face like a bandage, he says. It took five minutes to peel it off.
Even though no formal charges were filed against him, Sharkawy says he was interrogated for two weeks, then put into solitary confinement for 9 ½ months.
Sharkawy says his crime was conversion.
After President Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981, an emergency law gave Egyptian security forces broad power to arrest and hold suspects without trial. The law, designed to clamp down on Islamic terrorists, also has been used to arrest converts to Christianity without filing formal charges.
Sharkawy says he was never charged with anything, but state security investigators, also known as the secret police, told him he was an apostate, a renegade from Islam outside the protection of the law who deserved death if he did not recant.
His cell, he says, was 1 meter wide and 2 meters long, illuminated by a single bulb that was never turned off. His only bathroom break was between 9 and 9:05 a.m. each day.
He remembers standing naked, his hands tied behind his back, as police poked him "everywhere" with an electric probe. He says his arms were tied by wires to the ceiling, forcing him to stand on his tiptoes for three consecutive days.
Sharkawy was released after international human rights organizations and members of the U.S. Congress complained to the Egyptian government. But his problems didn't end.
He says he was fired from two jobs after policemen called his Muslim employers, informing them that he was an apostate. He started his own business making jackets, but he says that ended when police told his customers not to buy from him. His most recent job was with a computer company, but that ended, too, with a call from the police.
"I can work as a Muslim. I can work as a Christian," he says. "But I can't work as a (known) convert."
He can't get the government to use his preferred name, Joseph, or that of his son, "El Fady," which means "Christ the Redeemer." He can't get his government-issued identity card changed to read "Christian" instead of "Muslim." His son is also listed as a Muslim, meaning he must receive Islamic education in public school.
"I'm asking for help from believers who understand this," he says. "I'm asking for help from people who are interested in human rights."
In 1991, when human rights organizations and some members of the U.S. Congress complained of Sharkawy's jailing, an Egyptian government spokesman said "rumors" that Sharkawy was subjected to torture "are absolutely false and unfounded." The Egyptian government didn't respond to more recent requests for comment.
In March, Britain gave Sharkawy and his family temporary refugee status on the grounds that he was persecuted because of his conversion to Christianity. Despite having to leave his homeland and leave his dream to evangelize more Egyptian Muslims, he says he has no regrets.
"I'm finding something special in a relationship with God," he says. "If somebody doesn't have that relationship, they can't understand. They can't understand why someone would give up their life and suffer for something called faith."
Converts who announce new belief face persuasion to renounce it
Jews, Christians and Muslims all teach that they are descended from Abraham.
Islam teaches that Jews and Christians are "people of the book" and must be treated as protected minorities. Although Moses and Jesus are considered prophets, Mohammed is seen as the final prophet. The Koran is the final revelation, the perfect guidebook for every aspect of life.
Muslims themselves allow, if not encourage, converts into their religion, though they cite Koranic verses insisting that no one should ever be pressured.
Paul Marshall, a researcher on religious persecution for the Washington, D.C.-based Freedom House, says about 100 Muslims convert to Christianity every year while as many as 10,000 Christians convert to Islam. Marshall says he bases his estimates on interviews with key Christian and Islamic leaders.
The Rev. Mahmoud Farhar, who was trained at Al-Azhar, says: "We don't benefit anything materially from that conversion, but we rejoice because this is a person we have helped on their way to heaven."
For converts out of Islam, there are strict procedures. Converts who keep quiet are generally left alone. Converts who make their new belief public are often interrogated and then persuaded to renounce their choice.
"If he then refuses, he is killed," says Bayoumi, dean of theology at Al-Azhar.
According to Malik, the Villanova scholar, no Muslim country has ever executed a convert.
Converts are considered apostates. There have been no verifiable reports of converts being killed, although one person accused of apostasy has been murdered.
Farag Foda, who challenged conventional Islamic dogma, was gunned down outside his office in a suburb of Cairo in June 1992.
Gama'a Islamiyya, a terrorist group committed to suppressing heresy and establishing an Islamic state, claimed credit for the killing.
"Anybody in Egypt can kill me because I've converted from Islam. I'm an apostate," says Matthew, who became a Christian in 1986.
So why did Matthew convert?
Matthew, who fears to be identified further in print, comes from a devout Islamic family but began to use the Christian name after he converted. No missionary evangelized him. He became a Christian, he says, after a private, personal search prompted by the question: "How is this possible that God has so little love and is so hard?"
"I said, 'I've never read the Bible. I should read it.' That changed my life. Jesus Christ became part of my total personality. I loved Christ more than anybody. He went inside my entire body and made me warm. This was very different from Islam. It was very strange for a Muslim to feel like this."
Christian says he was interrogated, jailed for discussing his conversion
For Sharkawy and Matthew, their problems began when they decided to share their revelations. Matthew says that a few years ago, he told several of his Muslim friends, and they, too, became Christians. That's when the police stepped in.
Every day for three months, Matthew says, he was summoned to the police station and interrogated by police who alternated between abusive and compassionate language, always trying to persuade him to return to Islam.
He refused. "Yes, I'm a Christian," he said.
He was also asked to list books he had read and people he had talked to. Matthew says he gave no names, "not one."
Authorities expanded their questioning to family members, neighbors and fellow students. All began to shun Matthew, he says.
He says that he was later jailed without a trial for 10 months, and electric shocks were applied to his genitals during interrogation. He was put in solitary confinement in a 1-by-1 ½-meter cell.
Because he was allowed to go to the bathroom only once every two days, the cell was filled with urine and excrement. There was no window or light. It was so dark, Matthew says, he couldn't see his finger in front of his face. "They want to make you crazy in that way," he says.
He was released after members of the U.S. Congress complained to the Egyptian government.
Noor says stories such as this should be no surprise. He expects Muslim converts to Christianity to continue to be mistreated. He says he will continue to preach and to baptize until he dies or is jailed.
"We have to expect persecution," Noor says. "This is part of our Christian faith. Why run away from it?"