(Agenzia Fides) – “In Eritrea, the regime has begun to persecute religious confessions and, in particular, the Catholic Church. The objective is clear: to try to prevent its influence on society: not by prohibiting worship, but social activities”. This is the alarm launched by Mussie Zerai, a priest of the eparchy of Asmara, for years a chaplain of the Eritreans in Europe and active in saving migrants in danger in the Mediterranean. Since 1995 – he explained to Fides – there has been a law in force in the country according to which the State wants to carry out all social activities. Therefore, the latter cannot be carried out by private or even by religious institutions. So far, the law has been applied in a bland manner and has not seriously affected the network of services offered by Christians and Muslims. In the last few months, however, there has been an acceleration.
Public officials have decreed the closure of five Catholic clinics in various cities. The minor seminary (which served both the diocese and the religious congregations) was closed in Asmara. Also several schools of the Orthodox Church and Muslim organizations had to close their doors. The closure of an Islamic institute, at the end of last October unleashed the harsh protests of the students.
“Beyond the economic damage to individual religious confessions – continues abba Mussie – those who pay a high price is the population who no longer has serious and efficient structures to turn to. In Xorona, for example, they closed the only dispensary in operation that was run by Catholics. In Dekemhare and Mendefera, the authorities have banned the activity of Catholic medical centres by stating that they were a duplication of state ones. In reality, public facilities do not work: they do not have medicines, they cannot operate because they do not have suitable equipment and often not even electricity”.
But what is the reaction of the population? “To rebel is not easy”, explains the priest. “The Muslim uprising was stopped with weapons. And there were many dead and wounded. Last month, seven thousand young call-ups joined and, together, called for a meeting with President Isayas Afeworki to denounce the harassment of their officers. The president received them and listened to them. At the end of the talks the boys were taken to a concentration camp near Nakfa and, as a punishment, were left outdoors, under the scorching sun, with very little food and water. Many fell ill. After the parents’ protests, the regime said that it will send them to the barracks to finish the naja. But under what conditions?”.
(Agenzia Fides) – “We are happy; to God be the glory”, said Sister Agatha Osarekhoe, Superior General of the Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Christ, announcing the release of the three sisters and three reverend sisters abducted on 13 November 2017 in the State of Edo, in southern Nigeria (see Fides 18/12/2017). “One was said to have been released on Saturday, 6 January while the others on Sunday 7. Now they are fine. They are receiving some medical check-up in a hospital”, she said.
The first to be released was Veronica Ajayi, around 6 pm on Saturday 6 January. The three sisters, Sister Roseline Isiocha, Sister Aloysius Ajayi, Sister Frances Udi, were released along with two others on Sunday, January 7 at noon.
On November 13, the six religious women had been forcibly taken by some armed men who had invaded their residence in Iguoriakhi. The criminals went away with six of them in a speed boat.
According to the local press, the kidnappers were said to have later demanded a ransom of N20 million (about $ 54.00). However, the Superior General stated that no ransom was paid: “No ransom was paid. We know that the Police did their best because they are aware. They had to do their work. The most important thing is that our sisters are free”.
The police commissioner, Johnson Kokumo, said that the sisters were rescued during an operation by policemen from the command. “Police operatives closed in on the daredevil kidnappers and they had no other option than to release the reverend sisters”.
On Sunday, December 17 after the Angelus Pope Francis had launched an appeal for the release of the religious with these words: “From the heart, I unite myself to the appeal of the Bishops of Nigeria for the liberation of the six Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, kidnapped roughly a month ago from the convent in Iguoriakhi”. (L.M.) (Agenzia Fides, 9/1/2018)
(Morning Star News) – A Coptic Christian killed by Islamic militants in Egypt’s northern Sinai was buried in his home village yesterday amid wailing and tears, religious rights activists said.
Bassem Herz Attalhah, 27, was shot to death on a street in El Arish, capital of the North Sinai Governorate, on Saturday (Jan. 13) after three Islamist gunmen stopped him and asked if he was a Christian, according to online news outlet Copts United. His funeral took place in Dweik village, Tema District, in Sohag Governorate.
Bassem Herz Attalhah was on his way home from work with his brother, Osama, and a Muslim friend, when three men about 23 to 25 years old in black jackets called to them, according to Copts United. Two of the young men were carrying automatic weapons, the third had a pistol, and their faces were uncovered, the news site reported.
Because the men were unmasked, the brothers thought they were police, Copts United reported.
They asked to see Bassem Herz Attalhah’s hand, as many Copts in Egypt bear a small tattoo of a cross on their wrists. Bassem Herz Attalhah showed them his cross. After seeing his tatoo, the militants asked him if he was a Christian, and he boldly replied that he was, according to Copts United.
The militants dismissed the Muslim, identified only as Mohamed, after confirming that he was not a Christian.
The gunmen then asked Bassem Herz Attalhah’s brother to show them his hand. Bassem Herz Attalhah mentioned that they should leave his brother alone because he has five children, according to the news site.
“I had a cross on my hand, but at the top of my hand the sleeve covered the wrist,” Bassem Herz Attalhah’s brother said, according to Copts United, and as the gunmen apparently did not realize the two men were brothers, they thought he was a Muslim. “Then they fired two shots next to my leg. They asked me to leave.”
The militants then shot Bassem Herz Attalhah in the head, killing him instantly, the news site reported.
“My brother happened to fall in front of me, and I could not do anything,” his brother said, according to Copts United. “They were looking for a Copt to kill, and as I ran I was on my way to the ground from the shock.”
The Christian brothers and their family had fled El Arish during a spate of Islamic terrorist violence in early 2017, but had returned after finding no work in Ismailia and Cairo, according to Copts United.
“My mother did not bear the shock when she learned about the killing of Bassem,” Osama Attalhah said, according to Copts United. “Our house turned into screaming and crying. We did not imagine that what happened had happened. The gunmen were walking in the street without any objection, and their faces were open to everyone. They were not arrested.”
An Islamic State affiliate known as the Sinai Province has been active in the area, with some blaming it for the killing of 311 people and the wounding of at least 122 in a mosque bombing last November. The group sometimes calls itself the Islamic State Egypt.
More than 300 Christian families had fled North Sinai after seven Christians were killed in a few weeks, and Islamic extremists released a video threatening further violence against Christians, according to advocacy group Middle East Concern. Another Christian who had returned to the area after fleeing, Nabil Saber Fawzy, was killed in May 2017, according to MEC.
Egypt was ranked 17th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
Nigeria (Morning Star News) – At first the commercial motorcycle drivers I needed clamored for my business, but when they found out I was going to Kwanti village, in northern Nigeria’s Kaduna state, they all dispersed without haggling over prices.
Kwanti and its surrounding villages of large estates inhabited mostly by farmers have been taken over by armed bandits believed to be Muslim Fulani herdsmen and terrorists. They are working in concert to terrorize local communities through kidnappings and thus force people from their lands.
“Even if you give me 1 million naira [US$2,750], I will not take the risk to take you to Kwanti,” one of the drivers told me.
Unable to convince one of them to be my guide to the area, I watched as they discussed in hushed tones among themselves in the Gbagyi language. I approached them again with a Gbagyi greeting “Agife,” and they engaged me in talk of how mine was a trip of no return. Finally one elderly fellow consented to take me there – at five times the usual charge.
“If going to Kwanti will bring into the open our plight as a people, I am prepared to die for it so that my people can be rescued from kidnappers who have made our lives miserable,” he said.
On the one-hour drive to Kwanti, we did not meet a single soul on the roads. At every village we passed, the driver would stop and inquire how safe it was to proceed. The answer was always the same: “Watch out, but is the risk worth it?”
The “road” was a bush path that only vehicles fitted with special gears can negotiate. My guide was sweating profusely. Surrounded by forest, his eyes were roving from side to side checking for lurking kidnappers. To him we were traveling in the shadow of the valley of death, and I recited Psalm 23 to him, telling him that we were protected by the power above that is greater than that of the kidnappers.
When we arrived Kwanti, we found a ghost village. There were four abandoned church buildings – Catholic, EKAS, Baptist, and Assemblies of God – and numerous houses deserted out of residents’ fear of kidnappers. We met some few persons in the village who were moving their belongings out.
Once inhabited by prosperous, large-scale commercial farmers, the village had been attacked by marauding kidnappers four times within one year, I learned. Many lives were lost, many people were kidnapped and millions of naira had been paid as ransom for mostly women victims.
The few people left in the village told me all the church leaders had left because all the residents had fled. I got a phone number of one of the pastors and called him. He was shocked that I was in Kwanti. He urged me to leave the village immediately.
“The kidnappers are heartless,” he said. “They can kidnap you if they spot you. They strike any time, and ransom must paid before a victim can be released. Sometimes you may not be lucky to come out alive if they kidnap you. So please leave Kwanti now, and let me know if you’re out of the place safely.”
Other villages attacked within that triangular “axis of evil” include Ungwar Rimi, Bauta, Kunuko, Ronu, and Taso 2.
On our way out, as a safety measure we took a different route out of the village, but like the road in, it had broken culverts that forced us to drive into stream water to find our way. My guide’s relief was palpable when we arrived back at Kaduna city, but even as we thanked God for journey mercies and protection, my heart was still with those in Kwanti struggling to move their belongings out.
Surprisingly, the next morning some of the villagers phoned me to inquire whether I had safely reached Kaduna. They had been praying for my safe ride back.
The federal and Kaduna state governments urgently need to investigate the extent of lawlessness in this triangular axis between Kajuru, Jere, and Sabon Wuse/Ganya. Officials need to take measures to end the kidnappings that have become dreaded monsters devouring innocent lives of our citizens.
Kidnappings are not just a menace in southern Kaduna state but are becoming a phenomenon pushing the country to the brink. Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church recently lamented that the whereabouts of three nuns kidnapped in Benin City, Edo state in southwest Nigeria, are still unknown after two months. They were abducted along with three student-nuns at a convent by armed gunmen on Nov. 13.
The Rev. Alfred Adewale Martins, archbishop of Lagos Archdiocese of the Catholic Church, told reporters on Jan. 1 of his sadness over the incessant invasion of churches, kidnappings of priests and pastors and attacks on Christian communities across the country.
“It is disheartening that the security agencies have not been able to get the sisters out, and one wonders why this is the case,” he said. “We still do hope that the security agencies would do much more than is being done now to ensure that the sisters are released.”
Roseline Isiocha, Aloysius Ajayi and Frances Udi, along with the three nuns in training, were kidnapped at about 2 a.m. from a convent of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus (EHJ) Sisters, in Iguoriakhi village, near Benin City.
Unless drastic measures are adopted to curtail kidnapping, the practice threatens to spread into a dangerous conflagration.
In this video, Michael, a Sudanese Christian, shares his encounter with Jesus and tells how he’s been called to preach the Gospel in the Middle East despite the risk of strong persecution.
I’ve seen many miracles – Christian Testimony of Michael (South Sudan) – 2/7
Supernatural joy in the midst of persecution – Christian Testimony of Michael (South Sudan) – 3/7
Loving others according to Jesus – Christian Testimony of Michael (South Sudan) – 4/7
God’s promises never failed – Christian Testimony of Michael (South Sudan) – 5/7
Who is Jesus for me – Christian Testimony of Michael (South Sudan) – 6/7
Should you believe in God? – Christian Testimony of Michael (South Sudan) – 7/7
We pray you were blessed and encouraged by hearing our brother, Michael’s testimony. Please share it widely for others to hear. Thank you to CHRISTIANS OF THE WORLD, a Christian Testimony channel, for sharing Michael’s story. Visit their YouTube channel and be inspired by testimonies of faith in Jesus Christ. We also ask that you will pray for their ministries to expand and bring glory to God.
Nigeria (Morning Star News) – A mass burial on Sunday (Jan. 7) was announced for 49 of at least 65 Christians killed in Muslim Fulani herdsmen attacks in Benue state, Nigeria that began on New Year’s Day, sources said.
Benue Gov. Samuel Ortom announced on Saturday (Jan. 6) that coffins would be provided for the state-sponsored funeral as he visited Benue State University Teaching Hospital-Makurdi’s hospital morgue. Brandishing heavy weaponry as well as cutlasses, Muslim Fulani herdsmen attacked several predominantly Christian villages in the Guma and Logo Local Government Areas (LGAs) on Jan. 1-2 and on Friday and Saturday (Jan. 5-6).
The governor of the Middle Belt, majority-Christian state told journalists that 49 corpses recovered from the Christian communities in Guma and Logo Local Government Areas had been kept in morgues across the state. He said a mass burial was necessary because the bodies were decomposing. The governor announced three days of mourning to be observed after the funeral.
“What I have seen here is far beyond the report we received,” he said. “Several innocent people have been killed. Women and children murdered with their throats slit open. Many people are still missing while several houses have been destroyed. The whole of Guma and Logo have been turned into desolate lands.”
The state has begun implementing an anti-grazing law passed on Nov. 1, 2017 that Muslim Fulani herdsmen have ignored. Guards armed only with cutlasses assigned to protect the predominantly Christian farmers’ lands were reportedly helpless against the attacks, with several losing their lives. Local residents said more than 50 people were killed in the Jan. 1-2 attacks.
Gov. Ortom said herdsmen groups have issued threats since the passage of the anti-grazing law.
“Now, those people who have been killed, their blood will cry to the federal government and, if the federal government does not do something, their blood will cry to the Almighty God, and I’m sure that God will deal with the situation Himself,” Gov. Ortom said. “This is not fair, and it is not acceptable.”
The Benue State Police Command reported arresting eight herders in connection with the killings in the Guma and Logo areas. Police spokesman Moses Joel Yamu said in a statement that herdsmen were suspected in the slayings.
Demonstrators took to the streets in Makurdi, the state capital, on Wednesday (Jan. 3) to protest President Muhammadu Buhari’s silence over the attacks. Barricading roads, making bonfires and chanting, they reportedly called on him to act immediately to stop continuous killings by gunmen in Benue state or resign.
The protest reportedly turned violent, with three people losing their lives and many injured.
The Benue State chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) said in a statement that incessant attacks by Muslim Fulani herdsmen violate fundamental rights and Nigeria’s constitution. State CAN Chairman Akpen Leva lamented the failure of the federal government to halt the unprovoked killings and destruction of property.
Jan. 6 Attack
Following the New Year’s attacks that claimed at least 50 lives, on late Friday night and early Saturday (Jan. 5-6) Muslim Fulani herdsmen killed at least 15 Christians in the predominantly Christian Logo area’s Tombu and other villages, sources said.
Area resident Joseph Anawa told Morning Star News that all the victims were members of the Universal Reformed Christian Church, in Nigeria known as the NKST (Nongo U KristuU I Ser Sha Tar). He identified some of them as evangelist Kwaghkighir Ukende; Kwaghve Baaki, 70; Suushater Kwaghve, 7; Mlahaga; Terhile Tyozho; Verinumbe Jam; Pinega Mbavuur; Iana Kpenger; Mnenge Ayaibo; Kwaghve Baaki; Terhemen Kwaghve; Ioryue Tsehemba; Zahemen Tsavkuleve; and Ahemba Shaku.
Villages attacked included Tse Akombo, Tse Vii, Tse Agule, Turan, Ukemberagya, Tswarev, Gaambe-Tiev, Tswarev, Tse Toradi, Channel One, Akenawe, and Meeme, Anawa said.
“So far, corpses of Mr. Verinumbe Jam and Mr. Pinega Mbavuur of Mbaamase were discovered at Toradi village, while those of evangelist Kwaghkighir Ukende, Mr. Iana Kpenger, and Mr. Mnenge Ayaibo were picked up at Channel One settlement, all in Tswarev District, Logo LGA,” Anawa said.
Cephas Hough, another resident of Tse-Kimbir village, identified five of those killed as Kwaghve Baaki, Terhemen Kwaghve, Ioryue Tsehemba, Zahemen Tsavkuleve, Ahemba Shaku, and an unidentified victim.
“The herdsmen went from house to house, shooting sporadically and killing six Christians,” he told Morning Star News.
Richard Nyajo, chairman of the Logo LGA, told Morning Star News by phone that the casualty figure is higher than reported as many women and children are missing and unaccounted for.
“Thousands of people have been displaced,” Nyajo said. “Corpses of those killed have been evacuated to morgues in hospitals in Katsina Ala and Gboko. We are still taking records of the victims, both the living and the dead. The true casualty figures may not be known now, but we are hoping that in weeks to come we shall have detailed information on these attacks.”
New Year’s Day Attack
Attacked on New Year’s Day were the villages of Tse Igbudu Taraka, Tomotar, Tse Abi, Nongov, Mbashav, Mbagber, Turan and Gaambe-Tiev, all in the Guma or Logo LGAs.
“Many have been forced to flee their homes,” area resident James Gbudu told Morning Star News.
Some of the wounded were taken to NKST Church Hospital in Anyiin, area resident Peter Ugondo told Morning Star a News.
Authorities of the Benue State Police Command said the New Year’s Day attacks began around 10 a.m. as Christians were at church worship services and lasted until 2 a.m. on Jan. 2.
Benue State Police Command spokesman Yamu confirmed the attacks.
“The communities came under heavy attack by well-armed herdsmen who stormed the communities late Friday night till the early hours of Saturday,” he said in a statement. “The fact is that much more must have been killed, but we will confirm that in the coming days as more bodies are recovered from the affected communities.”
Last year Muslim Fulani herdsmen launched attacks that killed at least 29 Christians in the first 10 weeks of 2017, and in February 2016 more than 300 in the Agatu area of the state were slaughtered in attacks by the herdsmen.
Christians make up 51.3 percent of Nigeria’s population, while Muslims living primarily in the north and middle belt account for 45 percent.
Nigeria ranks 12th on Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List of countries where Christians suffer the most persecution.
(World Watch Monitor) The European Court of Human Rights ruled last month that an Iranian who sought asylum in Switzerland based on religious grounds could be deported to his home country because his life was not in danger, despite various reports detailing how Iran persecutes religious minorities and converts to Christianity.
Human Rights advocate Ewelina Ochab, in an article for Forbes Magazine, called it “another blow to the victims of religious persecution”.
The court said “Mr. A” did not have reason to expect torture or to fear for his life, as long as he didn’t pose a threat to the Iranian government and “practise[d] his faith discreetly”.
But quoting from various reports that provide evidence and detail stories of religious persecution in Iran, Ochab said: “It is concerning how the Swiss authorities concluded that converts ‘who practised their faith discreetly, did not face a real risk of ill-treatment upon their return’… The only reasonable conclusion is that by ‘practising faith discreetly’, the Swiss authorities meant not practising faith at all, as the practice requires some degree of manifestation and … this practice is significantly limited if not impossible in Iran”.
Ochab concluded that “the way in which the issue of religious persecution has been dealt with by the Swiss authorities and by the ECtHR shows that religious persecution continues to be misunderstood and neglected”.
Meanwhile an Iranian bishop in Tehran has faced criticism for his claims that Christians in Iran “have freedom of religion”.
“The Islamic government grants its Christian citizens every right to practise their faith, including observing their feasts such as Christmas,” Sibo Sarkisian, Armenian-Orthodox Bishop of Tehran, told Spanish news agency EFE. “They’re just not allowed to share their faith publicly, as it is forbidden under the Islamic government’s law.”
Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, said that “while the Iranian Constitution recognises Christians as an official religious minority, the state continues to persecute believers of the faith, especially converts”.
Amnesty International reported last year on the large numbers of Afghan asylum-seekers sent home from European nations, which Amnesty accused of being “wilfully blind” to the risks they face “of serious human rights violations”. It said religious minorities and converts to Christianity face additional risks.
In August an Iranian convert to Christianity was refused asylum in Sweden after she was told by migration board officials that it was her “personal life” and “not our problem if you decided to become a Christian; it’s your problem”.
Aideen Strandsson (who took a Swedish name) said a Swedish migration official told her it wouldn’t be as bad for her in Iran as she is expecting because “it would only be six months in prison”, and, in her words, for the official that was “no problem”.
Determine the ‘real converts’
The challenge for the authorities and also church leaders is to determine the “real” converts among asylum seekers, over those only pretending to help their case.
In September World Watch Monitor reported how Afghan and Iranian asylum-seekers in Germany were finding shelter in churches and how many of them were becoming Christians in the process. According to the Washington Post, “conversion is both a side-effect of church relief and a potential advantage for rejected asylum-seekers, who can claim deeper need for asylum if they are at risk of religious persecution in their home country”.
Meanwhile the Federal German Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has been accused of wrongly rejecting asylum claims, where the applicant’s path to conversion had only taken a few months. German MP Volker Beck also criticised the Office for ruling that weekly church attendance did not amount to evidence of religious conversion, the German daily Handelsblatt reported. Beck accused the BAMF of considering itself more qualified than a parish priest to judge the authenticity of a person’s stated beliefs, based only on a two-hour interview.
A UK Parliamentary group in 2016 reviewed how the UK Home Office processes asylum-seekers’ claims. It found that, too often, “officials are asking about Bible trivia, rather than probing what someone really believes. And this lack of understanding of religion and belief is leading to the wrong people being rejected – meaning they could be forced out when they have genuinely been persecuted”. UK Home Office guidelines have been reviewed in light of the report.