Priest says situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate

By Paul Jeffrey Catholic News Service

Palestinian baby receives medical attention in Gaza City

A baby looks around while the mother talks to a doctor in Gaza City. The clinic serves Palestinian refugees and is supported by the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. (CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

 

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (CNS) — One year after a war with Israel that turned daily life here into a nightmare, a Catholic priest in Gaza said the situation in this besieged Palestinian territory has deteriorated even further.

“Compared with a year ago, we’re worse off. Although a truce stopped the war, the blockade of Gaza by Israel has grown more intense. This has direct consequences for the population,” said Father Jorge Hernandez, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Parish in Gaza City.

The priest said the war also served as a recruiting tool for Hamas, the Islamic party that has controlled Gaza since 2007.

“The war generated new activism throughout Gaza. The number of people willing to fight has multiplied, whether on behalf of Hamas or Islamic Jihad or the Salafists, and now even with the Islamic State. Despite that, the great majority of the people of Gaza is not aligned with one party or another. They just want to live a normal life,” Father Hernandez, an Argentine missionary of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, told Catholic News Service.

The 50-day war cost the lives of more than 2,250 Palestinians, 65 percent of whom were civilians, according to a June report from a U.N. investigation. The report said “the scale of the devastation was unprecedented.” It said the Israeli military launched more than 6,000 air strikes, 14,500 tank shells and 45,000 artillery shells into Gaza between July 7 and Aug. 26, 2014.

The war also “caused immense distress and disruption to the lives of Israeli civilians,” the U.N. said, reporting that nearly 4,900 rockets and more than 1,700 mortars were fired by Palestinian armed groups during that period. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers were killed, along with six civilians.

The report also cites as possible war crimes the conduct of Israeli operations in residential neighborhoods, as well as the killing of 21 suspected collaborators by Hamas’ armed wing.

Father Hernandez said militants came to his church compound twice looking for alleged spies among some 1,400 civilians who took shelter there. Church buildings were damaged when Israel bombed a neighboring house. At one point, Father Hernandez and several members of the Missionaries of Charity shepherded a group of 29 disabled children and nine elderly women into the open.

“We put them in the patio in front of church, a place that’s far from any homes. And then we prayed that Israel wouldn’t bomb the church,” he said.

Gaza’s children continue to be affected by the war, the priest said. Besides thousands who remain in temporary shelters, he said the overwhelming violence of the conflict has created discipline problems, with normal tensions in the family and on the street more quickly escalating into physical violence. And lingering stress generates health problems.

“Some kids continue to have problems with speech or bed-wetting, and now that there are rumors of another war — some are even talking about specific dates — one child’s hair has started to fall out again,” he said.

One Catholic leader in the region said that Gaza’s Christians have nonetheless adjusted to their perilous situation.

“When I came here immediately after the war, everyone I talked to pleaded for a one-way ticket out of Gaza. But I no longer hear that. They are resilient, this is their home, and they’re resolved that they’re going to make a contribution to society. They are proud to be both Christian and Palestinian, no matter the difficult conditions,” said Sami El-Yousef, regional director for Palestine and Israel of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Of Gaza’s 1.8 million population, only about 1,300 are Christian. Catholics number fewer than 200. Relations between this small minority and the Muslim majority have been marred by discrimination.

“When one looks for work here, the first thing they ask is if you are a Muslim. If you are, then they ask if you support Hamas or Fatah. If neither, they ask which mosque you go to, because they want to know who you’re loyal to,” Father Hernandez said. “But if you’re a Christian, you won’t get asked those questions because you won’t get the job. The only way Christians can get jobs is through a Muslim friend who serves as an intermediary. No store or school or bank will give them a job, so they come to the church asking for help.”

There are occasional episodes of harassment of Christians on the street, Father Hernandez said, which is one reason he maintains good relations with Hamas officials.

“It’s important for me to have good contacts, because if there’s a problem I just call someone at a high level and immediately they respond and grab the responsible person. If I had to go to the police to file a report, and the police officer had a long beard, then nothing would happen,” he said.

Vatican support for Palestinians, which has strengthened under Pope Francis, has helped ease tensions on the ground, Father Hernandez said.

“We are treated by Israel as Palestinians, but at times other Palestinians don’t want to recognize us as Palestinians. What the pope has done has helped us a lot within our community. We are just as Palestinian as Hamas. And if they forget that, we remind them of what the pope has said and done,” he said.

Source: Catholic News Service

DEFENCE CLOSE THEIR CASE IN TRIAL OF SOUTH SUDANESE PASTORS

The defence team in the trial of South Sudanese pastors Rev Yat Michael and Rev Peter Reith closed their case after presenting two witnesses at the hearing in Khartoum, Sudan.

One of the witnesses was ex-army general and 2010 presidential candidate Abdul Aziz Khalid, who testified that the evidence presented by the prosecution was available to civilians and not classified; therefore the security and espionage charges against the pastors were without basis.

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The pastors have been charged with at least six crimes including undermining the constitutional system (Article 50); espionage (Article 53); promoting hatred amongst sects (Article 64); breach of public peace (Article 69); and offences relating to insulting religious beliefs (Article 125). Of the charges, Articles 50 and 53 carry the death penalty or life imprisonment in the event of a guilty verdict.

The next hearing is scheduled for 23 July, when the judge will hear closing statements. The verdict is expected on 5 August.

The pastors were once again denied access to their legal team ahead of the hearing, despite an earlier direction from the judge that they would be allowed 15 minutes with their lawyers. At the last hearing on 2 July, the judge permitted the defence team 15 minutes with the pastors in order to prepare their case. The pastors’ lack of access to their families and legal team is an ongoing concern. Despite repeated requests to the court and prison service, neither the pastor’s legal team nor their families have been given permission to visit them in Kober Prison.

Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), said, “Today the court heard from a prominent expert witness that there is no basis for the charges against the pastors. We therefore renew our call for these unwarranted and extreme charges to be dropped and for Rev Yat Michael and Rev Peter Reith to be released unconditionally and without further delay. The ongoing denial of access to the pastors’ legal team is unacceptable and in violation of fair trial principles, as articulated in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sudan is a party. The denial of family visits is a further measure to increase their mental and emotional distress; a cruel and unjust action on the part of the State. We urge the African Union in particular, and the wider international community, to challenge Sudan on its treatment of the pastors and its failure to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief and the right to a fair trial.”

Source: Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW)

S Sudan pastors speak to CBN from prison

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Reverend Yat Michael and Reverend Peter Yein are pastors with the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. Both men were arrested by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) when they visited Khartoum last December and January and have been in prison since then. They’ve been charged with “inciting organized groups” and “offending Islamic beliefs,” as well as undermining the constitution and espionage, which carry the death sentence or life in prison.

They are currently being held at Kober Prison in North Khartoum. In an exclusive CBN News interview, Senior International Correspondent George Thomas talked to the two pastors via telephone from their Khartoum prison cell.

“There is zero evidence that either pastor undermined the constitutional system of Sudan, conducted espionage, promoted hatred, disturbed the peace, or blasphemed.”

– Tiffany Barrans, American Center for Law and Justice

Sudan has long been governed under strict Sharia law and archaic judicial punishments are often doled out among the accused. Stoning, flogging and even crucifixion are all considered acceptable. The country’s public order law allows police officers to publically whip women they consider to be guilty of public indecency.

Please continue to pray for these pastors.

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Heb 13:3 NIV

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Police rescue Pakistani Christian from ‘mob justice’ over blasphemy

by Asif Aqeel

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Rukhsana and other family members were beaten and had their faces blackened by an angry mob, June 2015 World Watch Monitor

 

A Christian father of four was beaten, had his head shaved, his face blackened, and was dragged through his Pakistan village before he was rescued by police June 30.
Awais Qamar’s wife, Rukhsana, and two other family members also were beaten and had their faces blackened with soot by a mob angered by the fact that the family had been using a salvaged advertising banner as a mat to cover their floor. The banner, containing the emblems of various colleges, also included a short verse from the Qur’an: “My Lord, increase me in knowledge.”

Qamar, 35, who also is known by the name Gharibu, which means “a poor man” in the local language, was boring for a new tube well about two kilometers away from his village Maki 460 in Farooqabad, about 50 miles northwest of Lahore. It was about 9:30 a.m., and a man in the local mosque had announced from its loudspeaker that Qamar had desecrated the Qur’an. Qamar was summoned to the village for “committing blasphemy.”

A crowd already had begun to converge in the village. A Christian neighbor of Qamar, Nazir Masih, tried to intervene.

‘Teach Gharibu a lesson’

“As soon as I had come to know about this issue I rushed to meet the people and assured them that Christians would teach Gharibu a lesson, but they should not take law and order into their own hands,” Masih told World Watch Monitor.

“The mistake was too big but the villagers should forgive it and start living peacefully again, as Gharibu was an absolute illiterate,” Masih said. “But they said that the sin was too grave and was unpardonable and the only remedy for desecrating the Qur’an is death.”

“I even offered them that Gharibu could be banished from the village, but they urged to kill him.”

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One-room house where Gharibu and his family lived World Watch Monitor

Masih said two instigators of the violence — brothers Muhammad Riaz, 23, and Muhammad Niaz, 30 — shaved Qamar’s head and blackened his face, and blackened the faces of his wife, their daughter Farzana, and of Qamar’s sister-in-law, Rehana.

“Men were beating Gharibu while women were beating his wife, Rukhsana, and then the mob made a garland of shoes and put it in Gharibu’s neck and dragged him in the streets while beating him,” Masih said.

Rev. Asif Bashir, pastor of the Seventh Day Adventist Church next to Qamar’s house, said he called police.

Even before the police arrived, they urged some of influential Muslims from a nearby village to intervene. One of those who stepped in, a man who asked not to be named, told World Watch Monitor that he employed both Qamar’s father, Siraj Masih, and brother, Ashraf.

Beaten up

“I had to intervene after I heard Ashraf’s wife, Rehana, was also being beaten up,” the man said. “Also, a police officer informed me that there was no issue of blasphemy and only illiterate villagers were making something out of nothing. I took Ashraf with me and reached where the crowd was beating and humiliating them. I told them that they immediately stop torturing them or else they should be ready to face consequences as the police were also on their way.”

Additional Superintendent of Police, Muhammad Jawad Tariq, said he was near Maki 460 village when he was alerted to respond to the violence. He arrived with another officer.

“The mob didn’t resist much and handed over these fellows to us,” Tariq told World Watch Monitor. “We just bundled them in police vans and sped from there.”

Qamar, his wife and the other vicitms were evacuated to a safe place, said District Police Officer Sohail Zafar Chattha.

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Facebook post from police officer Sohail Zafar Chattha, June 2015 World Watch Monitor

Chattha, who maintains a popular Facebook profile, posted a message to the social-media site saying that police who got to the scene before him “averted a big human tragedy.”

“My direction to them was categorical: save the couple at any cost even if you have to shoot the perpetrators,” he wrote on his Facebook post. He said police arrested a mullah who had incited the violence. His name has not been released.

The mob, however, still was demanding action against Qamar and his family. “Some of them were even raising slogans to throw out all Christians from the village and set their houses on fire,” Masih said. “Others were saying to socially boycott all the Christians and never hire them for labor.”

Chattha said police refused to file a report against the family. He said almost half of the police force of the district was deployed to bring the situation under control.

“The police will remain deployed in front of the church for some time,” he told World Watch Monitor. “If there will be a need, a permanent checkpost can be set up to keep peaceful environment. However, I have advised for Gharibu and his family not to return to the place as it could be jeopardizing their lives.”

Trouble between Qamar’s family and the two brothers whom Masih said had whipped up the mob stretches back earlier than the June 30 violence.

The brothers, who are barbers, earlier this summer placed a stall outside their shop – and in front of Qamar’s house — and sold ice from it, Masih said. Others would gather at the stall in the evenings and peer into the house and hurl abusive language. Rukhsana complained to the brothers’ mother, to little effect.

Meanwhile, Rukhsana had brought a used roll-up banner from Faisalabad where her parents lived, Masih said. On June 30, a visiting friend told her the banner carried a verse of the Qur’an. Rukhsana offered to sell the banner, and the friend went home to obtain the money. When she came back, she was accompanied by a man who slapped Rukhsana and took the banner, Masih said.

Blasphemy allegations

Chattha said police refused to file a First Information Report against the family partly because the state inspector general had given police orders to investigate blasphemy allegations personally before determining whether to file a report.

“We will still not let the people go off scot free who triggered this tragedy in the first place and those who blackened the victims’ face and beat them,” he told World Watch Monitor.

Rabia Ghani, project manager for the Pattan Development Organization, which works with members of Pakistan’s parliament on human-rights issues, applauded the police’s quick rescue of the victims and refusal to lodge a report against them.

“It’s the need of time to push governments to have standard operating procedures for such cases and SOPs on how police should deal with cases of religious minorities,” Ghani wrote in an email. “The police should identify specific actions and behaviors to not just ensure non-discrimination, but strict action, transparency, and equipped with knowledge of an adequate, sensitive and proper response.”

Source: World Watch Monitor

Community ‘Justice’ Expels Copts from their homes

by Jayson Casper

Forgive Emad Youssef if he and his extended family felt quite confused. The crowd welcoming them back to the village had only a few days earlier demanded they leave.
“They said this is the first time something like this has happened in our village,” he told private satellite channel, OnTV “and that, Inshallah, it won’t happen again.”

Yet it happens frequently in Egypt – at least 23 times in the last four years, according to new research released by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). Whose Customs? – a 78-page report by EIPR – points out that the period from 2011-2014 saw 45 instances in which sectarian strife was settled, in different ways, outside the law through “Customary Reconciliation Sessions” (CRS).

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A community ‘reconciliation’ meeting between Copts and Muslims, Al-Nazriyah village 17 April 2015 WWM

 

In concept, CRS is community-based conflict resolution, long established in Egyptian tradition. If two residents have a dispute, solving it through the judicial system is long and costly. Instead, ‘wise men’ of the village will hear both sides and issue a binding ruling. Religious leaders are often involved.

If the dispute is violent, CRS is a method to calm tensions and prevent escalation. Police are usually present to enforce security.

But in the case of Youssef and his relatives, all Coptic Christians, the CRS took place because police did not do their job in the first place.

”This (the forced ‘relocation’) happened while the police were in the village, and they did nothing to stop them’ – a local Copt, choosing anonymity, stressed.

Emad’s brother Ayman is a migrant worker in Jordan, accused of sharing pictures deemed insulting of Muhammad on Facebook via his cell phone. Ayman claims he is innocent. Nevertheless, on May 27 a mob gathered in his home village back in Egypt, attacking the houses and fields of his family and their Coptic neighbors. The village of Kafr Darwish, about two-thirds Muslim, is located in Beni Suef, 70 miles south of Cairo.

Reports say that some local Muslim neighbors tried to defend the family, but the mayor was not able to control the situation. Officials and village leaders conducted a CRS and issued a verdict placating the mob. In Ayman’s absence his family was punished, resulting in the expulsion of 18 individuals, including Ayman’s mother and his 71-year-old father.

The displaced told of their ordeal as they were “traveling from one town to another and not finding a place to accommodate us”.

In this one instance, five families of 18 members had to contend with living in one room. “They expelled us while we have done nothing, we are struggling to provide for ourselves,” they said before their return.

Media is often inattentive to Upper Egyptian issues, but in this case the outcry was immediate. Popular broadcaster Ibrahim Eissa declared, “How is that we have an enlightened president but a Salafi [ultraconservative Muslim] state? We don’t have the courage to say: These are their homes and their life is here. Whoever stands against them and the law will be judged by the law!”

A day before Eissa said this, the Beni Sweif state governor had tried to intervene, announcing the displaced families would return. This only resulted in further attacks in the village. But the following day control was established. The governor convened a meeting in the village, with high profile political, religious, and security figures – and over 2,000 residents.

According to Mideast Christian News (MCN), the governor announced that the law does not allow the displacement of any Egyptian from their home. He promised to restore the properties that had been damaged.

But Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani (which helped first report the story) is not aware of even one Muslim arrested for the attacks. MCN reported that Christian villagers submitted the names of 20 individuals involved.

“I don’t consider this a happy ending, it is not a healthy situation and the law is not enforced,” Sidhom told WWM.

Fanatics ”may harm Christians,” he said, ”but the greater harm is done to the sovereignty of the state”.

Ishak Ibrahim (right) with Abdul Rahman at the EIPR press conference in Cairo, 10 June 2015 Jayson Casper

 

This incident is unique in that the state intervened to overturn the results of a CRS. But lead author of the EIPR report Ishak Ibrahim stated that the non-prosecution of offenders is common. In the vast majority of cases studied, no arrests were made. In the few that were, the accused were released shortly thereafter. The reconciliation agreements often stipulated the relinquishing of legal procedures.
“If people reject the ruling it can result in more sectarian attacks,” said Ibrahim, “but accepting it helps the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions.

“We put responsibility on the government because it is the one tasked to protect citizens and their rights.”

Article 63 of the Egyptian constitution forbids the forced displacement of any citizen. Article 95 insists all judicial rulings must be personal, not collective. And while Article 185 of the penal code allows for a victim to waive prosecution in certain circumstances, these do not include looting, arson, or intimidation.

But the waiver of prosecution has not applied to Christian aggressors.

Not all incidents begin as sectarian. In 29 per cent of the studied cases, community tension resulted from a romantic relationship between a Muslim and a Christian, and in 16 per cent conflict emerged from land and property disputes.

In each one where the Christian was at fault, legal prosecution continued after CRS-stipulated penalties, often exorbitant. But when the Muslim is at fault, reconciliation and social peace are emphasized. Sometimes there are no penalties whatsoever; other times the church has opted for waiving them to keep the peace.

Bias against Christians is also apparent in disputes with religious origins. Thirty-one percent of cases have to do with the practice of Christian religious ritual, including attempted church construction and repair.

Only one case was resolved in their favor.

‘Relocated’

Even the ‘Martyrs’ Church, established by a presidential decision to honor the 20 Egyptian Copts killed in Libya by the Islamic State (IS), had to be ‘physically relocated’ following protests and a subsequent CRS.

Eight per cent of cases had to do with expressing opinions on religious matters. The majority involved simply “liking” a Facebook page deemed insulting to Islam, and resulted in expulsion of the offender from his village.

WWM previously reported on Gad Younan, a teacher from Minya arrested with some of his students for a video in which they made fun of IS. MCN has recently reported that judicial procedures resulted in his release on bail pending further trial, but that the CRS agreement continues to demand he not return home.

“Customary reconciliation sessions are said to stop sectarian tension, but our analysis shows that they only serve to ignore it,” said Amr Abdel Rahman, head of the civil liberties unit at EIPR.

Abdel Rahman explained that those who conduct CRSs often view their sessions as above and apart from the law. This status is buttressed by the police presence that implicitly underwrites the process.

And in a rare departure from Coptic non-criticism of the government, Bishop Aghathon of Minya accused local authorities of collusion with conservative Muslims in CRS. He told a Coptic satellite channel that, in one incident in his diocese, the typical mob protest was instigated by security.

General Sayyid Nour el-Din, former director of security in Minya, defended the use of CRS. “It does not conflict with the law at all, it has to do with the prevention of bloody conflicts,” he told OnTV. “The security presence is there to protect the sessions, not to come up with their solution.”

Nour el-Din said security has to be especially vigilant as Islamist groups are looking for any excuse to explode the situation. Strong especially in the poorer southern governorates, their presence coincides with the use of CRS following sectarian incidents. EIPR reported 48 per cent of cases are from Upper Egypt, 33 per cent from Minya alone.

The Muslim Brotherhood officially condemned the forced displacement of Copts in Kafr Darwish, while blaming the church for tearing apart national unity through its support of thegovernment.

This latter sentiment was emphasized by a former parliamentarian from al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, an Islamist group implicated in many attacks on Copts in Upper Egypt during the 1990s.

“The church is part of Sisi’s regime,” said Amr Abdel Rahim. “They have to wake up and realize they are playing with Coptic lives and leading them to a holocaust.”

Abdel Rahim’s criticism makes no distinction between Islamist ideology and Muslim identity. He insists that “Muslims” are not against Copts, but if not, who does he think might conduct his so-called holocaust?

‘Roots of the Problem’

EIPR statistics indicated the use of one CRS per month during the interim rule of the military, when, following the fall of Mubarak, a security vacuum existed and Islamist groups felt themselves in the ascendency. During Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-led presidency the rate rose to 1.25 per month.

It declined under interim president Mansour and incumbent president Sisi following the removal of Morsi, but the practice continues all the same. EIPR noted six incidents, outside the scope of its report, in the first half of 2015 alone.

“From Mubarak to today, no regime has dealt with the roots of the problem,” said Ibrahim.

Sidhom tied CRS to an unreformed educational system that does not properly instill the values of citizenship.

Related is a weak state apparatus that submits to the pressure of militant action apart from the law.

But the EIPR report’s main author Ibrahim emphasized he is not against CRS in principle.

“Anything that extinguishes sectarian tension is beneficial, as long as the process of law continues,” he told OnTV.

“The problem is that it is a replacement for law, often compelled upon the weaker party, reflecting the local situation of power.”

But where power is balanced and tension is not high, Christians like Muslims avail themselves readily of a CRS, especially in view of a judicial system saddled with millions of new and pending cases and complaints per year.

“In 90 per cent of the cases, CRS is beneficial,” Fr. Yu’annis Anton of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Minya told WWM. “Relationships are reconciled and everyone takes his rights.”

Anton speaks from a long experience with CRSs, underlining their utility in non-sectarian cases. This is not the case of Kafr Darwish, he says, where a just rule of law ought to take precedence.

EIPR noted that its 45 cases detail only CRS usage following sectarian clashes, not the practice itself.

Perhaps following in the footsteps of Jesus, Emad Youssef chooses to reflect positively.

“This trial was from God, who has used it to increase the love shown to us by Muslim neighbors,” he said.

“They have made reconciliation,” added the 71 year old father. “We have returned home, in goodness and peace.”

Source: World Watch Monitor

Founder of the African Children's Choir, Music For Life and Friends In The West.