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Forgotten Christians of the Persecuted Church

Saturday, August 10, 2002 | Tag Cloud

While it would be impossible to relate all the untold or lesser-known stories of persecuted Christians worldwide, below are updates of a few in danger of being forgotten.

Shaiboub William Arsal [Egypt]

Two years ago, Shaiboub William Arsal was convicted of murdering his cousin and another young Coptic Christian in El-Kosheh, a village in Upper Egypt. Then 38 years of age, he was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor, the maximum penalty allowed for manslaughter under Egyptian law.

But in fact, the illiterate day laborer had become the scapegoat in a flagrant cover-up of police brutality in Egypt's Sohag province.

Arrested the morning after the double murder, Shaiboub was among more than 1,000 Christian villagers interrogated, threatened and abused over the next few weeks by local police investigating the crime. Rather than pursue the Muslim suspect named by the Coptic community, the police seemed determined to find one or more Christian culprits.

But when the local Coptic bishop publicly protested against their harsh treatment of his flock, police officials settled on Shaiboub as the guilty party. After holding two Coptic army conscripts under torture for several weeks, the police forced them to sign prepared statements that they had seen Shaiboub commit the murders.

The two Copts later retracted the confessions as false, declaring they were forced to sign them. But the Sohag Criminal Court refused their retractions, declaring they were "void of any credible evidence that the claims of coercion were true." Apart from police testimony, the two written statements were the prosecution's only evidence in the case.

Reacting to international inquiries on the case, the Egyptian government claimed the murders were a "normal criminal incident" that had been "grossly exaggerated" by the foreign press. A half-hearted inquiry into the alleged police excesses was quietly whitewashed by a judicial investigation, and after repeated delays and deferments, Shaiboub's guilty verdict was announced on June 5, 2000.

In contrast to Shaiboub's sentence, two self-confessed Muslim murderers who shot and killed a Coptic monk in September 1999 were given only seven-year prison terms.

By August 2000, defense lawyers had filed an appeal of the Sohag Criminal Court's verdict before the Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest court of appeal.

But to date, there has been no answer.

"The courts of Egypt are under no obligation to answer this appeal," Coptic lawyer Mamdouh Nakhla told Compass. Although the Court of Cassation normally responds to such an appeal application within six months to three years, the Egyptian legal system can choose to ignore it entirely.

"Or, they could just refuse it, say no, and it would be finished," Nakhla said. "That's just as likely," he admitted, noting that if Shaiboub's conviction should be overturned, the courts would then be obliged to resolve the case by finding the real culprit.

Shaiboub is currently incarcerated with some 1,500 other prisoners at a prison farm, part of the Tora maximum-security prison complex on the southeast edge of Cairo. His family, who live 330 miles away, can visit him once a month, for 30 minutes.

Although isolated in a solitary cell while under trial, Shaiboub now shares a cell with 25 or 30 other prisoners at a time, his lawyer said. Under current prison regulations, after serving three years of his hard-labor sentence, he would be eligible on the basis of good behavior for transfer to a general or light-security prison.

Shaiboub and his wife Suad have two sons, Emad (13) and William (7), and a daughter, Basma (8). Together with his mother in her 70s, they are being supported by his brother and church sources.

***A photo of Shaiboub Arsal and family is available electronically. Contact Compass Direct for pricing and transmittal.

The "Padang Six" [Indonesia]

One of Indonesia's worst miscarriages of justice against Christians took place in Padang, Sumatra island in 1998-99. Three Christians, including two pastors, were arrested and jailed for their role in helping a young Muslim girl who came to them claiming to have become a Christian.

In what may have been an elaborate sting operation, the Christians were accused of raping and abducting her. In 1999, with Muslim crowds outside the court baying for blood, they were sentenced on the flimsiest evidence.

Mr. Salmon Ongirwalu was sentenced to 10 years in prison; the Rev. Yanawardi Koto was given seven years, and the Rev. Robert Marthinus was given six years. In addition, the wives of Mr. Ongirwalu and Rev. Marthinus, and the church secretary, Ms. Jenny Mendrofa, were each handed six-year sentences for complicity, though none were asked to serve their sentences.

The three men appealed to the Indonesian Supreme Court. But in early 2001, the court refused to hear the case. The case was then referred to Indonesian President Wahid, who had the power to offer a pardon. Wahid was known to be sympathetic to their plight, but politics cruelly intervened and he was impeached and replaced by Megawati in mid 2001. President Megawati has shown no interest in the case.

All three continue to serve their sentences. Salmon Ongirwalu at first lost weight and contracted diseases from the prison food. His wife, however, is now able to bring him food every day, and this has greatly improved his health. If he qualifies for a government remission program, the earliest he can hope for release is at the end of 2003.

Yanawardi Koto works in the rehabilitation program of the jail and often travels outside the prison on project work. He is also considered so trustworthy that he is given a special one-night pass each month to spend with his family. He has a wife and two young children. If remission is granted to him, then he might also be free in the second half of 2003.

Robert Marthinus has also impressed the prison authorities with his good conduct. He is given a one-day leave once a month also, and often uses this time to lead services at his church. If remission is applied, he can expect to be freed later this year or in the first quarter of 2003.

After the justice question, the biggest issue was support for the families. Salmon and Yanawardi both have two children and Robert has three. But local Christians rallied around the families, and some missions have also given money to the families. So they have survived, and the children continue to be educated.

The area remains raw with the memories of the trial and riots. Christians number barely 400 in an area dominated by the staunchly Muslim Minang people, four-million-strong. Indonesia's reputation as a place where Christians may receive a fair trial remains in tatters. This is the country where three men who took pity on a girl claiming to have been rejected by her Muslim parents have served a total of 12 years in prison thus far for their kindness. They remain jailed.

***A photo of the "Padang Six" is available electronically. Contact Compass Direct for pricing and transmittal.

Ranjha Masih [Pakistan]

When he was arrested four years ago during funeral processions for Catholic Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad, Ranjha Masih was 50 years old. Jailed without bail ever since, his hair and beard have turned white in the local jail, and his health is failing.

"He's becoming weaker and weaker each time I see him," his wife Rashidaan Bibi told Compass, wiping her eyes with the end of her wrinkled dupatta, the traditional long scarf worn by rural women of the Punjab.

Ranjha's wife said her husband, a long-time personal friend of Bishop John, had been deeply shocked by the prominent cleric's suicide, made in protest against the victimization of Christians and other religious minorities under Pakistan's notorious "black laws" on blasphemy.

"Bishop John really loved my husband," she said, and their entire family joined the sad processions through Faisalabad on the bishop's burial day, May 8, 1998.

While returning home afterwards at dusk with his brother and three of his sons, she said, the men met a large procession. Thinking that the group were Christians, Ranjha shouted at them to return home, saying that the funeral was over.

But without warning, her sons later told her, the crowd rushed at their father with weapons and sticks in their hands. The mob of angry young Muslims grabbed Ranjha and began beating him, accusing him of throwing a rock that broke a neon sign bearing a verse from the Quran.

When the police arrived, Ranjha was arrested and taken off in a jeep. After his sons crept home and reported the incident to the family, the mosque loudspeakers in their neighborhood blared late that night, declaring that "Ranjha Masih was a blasphemer who should be killed and his house burned." Together with most of their Christian neighbors, the entire family fled overnight. Early the next morning, a Muslim mob surrounded their empty house, breaking down the doors and shattering windows until the police arrived to stop the destruction.

His family could learn nothing of his fate for several weeks, until by chance a relative who was at the local courthouse saw Ranjha in a queue of chained prisoners. "Our whole family rushed there to see him," his wife said. "He was in a police van, so we could hardly see him, but we could talk through the window."

Ranjha later told them he had been shifted from one place to another, always blindfolded and in heavy chains, and beaten repeatedly. According to a fact-finding report by Lahore's Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), he was taken to Thana Thekerewala, in the suburbs of Faisalabad, where he was "chained and tortured for approximately 15 days."

Seven weeks after his arrest, Ranjha was brought before a judge and formally indicted for violation of Section 295-C of the blasphemy law, despite the fact that in the police registry he was charged only under Section 295-A. While the former statute requires capital punishment for conviction, the latter calls for lighter sentences.

Incredibly, Ranjha's trial is still in process before the Faisalabad Sessions Court, where he is being defended by Khalil Tahir, a Christian lawyer himself under threat for taking the case.

"The prosecution has finally rested its case," a representative of the Catholic Church's National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) handling the case told Compass in mid May. "Now the defense can begin, so it will take at least two or three more months."

But on May 15, the judge failed to appear for the hearing, and on May 28, the case was postponed until June 8, when again the judge did not attend. The court session was re-scheduled for June 19.

Ranjha's family are allowed to visit him once a month for 30 minutes, no more than four persons at a time. Guards at the Faisalabad jail observe very strict security, his wife said, and they are never allowed to speak with him privately.

"The guards tell us, 'We are doing you a favor, being kind to even allow you to visit this blasphemer!'" she said. "Sometimes we have to listen to their abuse for several hours, waiting to see him, because we are not allowed to visit him until all the other prisoners' visitors have left."

His wife said her husband does not know how to read, and there is no one near him in the prison who can read the Bible to him. "He can just pray on his own," she said.

In the meantime, one of his sons and several other relatives have lost their jobs over his arrest on blasphemy charges. Rashidaan Bibi and her husband have five sons and one daughter, three of them married, and several grandchildren.

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