Morning Star News’ Top 10 Persecution Stories of 2013

In Nigeria, terrorists weren’t the only ones terrorizing Christians.

Lyop Dangyel suffered three gunshot wounds and lost two of her three daughters in attack in Torok, Plateau state. (Morning Star News)

Lyop Dangyel suffered three gunshot wounds and lost two of her three daughters in attack in Torok, Plateau state. (Morning Star News)

(Morning Star News) – Last year Egypt saw its greatest level of attacks on Christians; more Christians were killed in Syria’s civil war than anywhere else; and an Islamist rebel take-over in the Central African Republic brought new atrocities to the historically unstable country. But where political instability and civil war were not contributing factors, the greatest targeting of Christians primarily for their faith took place in Nigeria (even if oppression overall was worse in North Korea and Saudi Arabia). The stories have become so repetitive that they risk becoming at once routine and unbearable; on the ground, however, Nigerian Christians refuse to give in to the trauma. Their faith shines, even in the face of new causes for fear in 2013: The line blurred between terrorist groups and attacking tribal herdsmen, and government soldiers stationed to protect Christians sometimes killed them.

1 – Christians Terrorized in Nigeria

Monthly, if not weekly, Islamic extremist violence in Nigeria quietly took the lives of at least 700 Christians in villages throughout the central and northern parts of the country in 2013.

Relying on dubious second-hand sources, most Nigerian and international media misrepresented the killings as the result of ethnic/cattle disputes or, when tribal and property tensions were present, downplayed the fundamental religious motives. In the attacks by ethnic Fulani, Muslim herdsmen on Christians asleep in their homes in central and northern Nigeria, first-hand accounts by survivors to Morning Star News indicated the assailants were not always the usual suspects: sometimes they were dressed in military camouflage rather than their tribal dress; their weapons were more sophisticated and more numerous than in previous years; some wore bullet-proof vests; they were not identified as local people; and they included foreign mercenaries from surrounding countries. Tens of thousands of villagers were displaced as children, women and senior citizens were slaughtered in their beds for their faith.

“From all indications, the terrorism being witnessed in the country is purely in pursuit of jihad,” the Rev. Yiman Orkwar, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Makurdi in Benue state, told Morning Star News. “In Benue state, Fulani terrorists in collaboration with Boko Haram and other foreign mercenaries are causing wanton destruction of lives and property.”

Boko Haram, a Nigerian rebel group that includes mercenaries from Chad, Niger and Cameroon, seeks to impose a strict version of sharia (Islamic law) throughout Nigeria, and the terrorist organization has ties to Al Qaeda. Christian leaders fear they are inciting and supporting Muslim herdsmen in a bid to Islamicize traditionally Christian areas.

Suspected terrorists from Boko Haram set off four bombs that hit two churches in Kano city on July 29, killing at least 45 people, sources said. Christians were meeting at Christ Salvation Pentecostal Church when one explosion hit, and 39 bodies were recovered in the area, Christian leaders said. Christians were also meeting at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church as another bomb went off, and an explosion apparently targeting Peniel Baptist Church did not affect the structure.

Prosecutions were rare, reports of slow-arriving security forces were frequent, and at times the Special Task Force assigned to protect against attacks, or other soldiers, appeared to be the killers.

2 – Syria’s Civil War Leaves Christians Vulnerable to Atrocities

Italian Jesuit priest Paolo Dall'Oglio. (Wikipedia)

Italian Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio. (Wikipedia)

Fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the Syrian National Coalition, which includes a substantial faction of Islamic terrorist groups, led to atrocities against civilians. For many Christians Assad’s government was the lesser of two evils, and jihadist rebels targeted Christians not only for their faith but for their presumed allegiance to the government; more than 2,000 Christians killed for their faith. The rebels’ main fighting force, Jahdat al-Nusra, is an extremist group with an ideology similar to that of Al Qaeda.

The Oct. 21 Islamist rebel siege of the predominantly Christian town of Sadad, 160 kilometers (95 miles) north of Damascus, left 45 civilians dead, including several women and children; many were thrown into mass graves. Archbishop Alnemeh, Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Homs and Hama, said other civilians were threatened and terrorized, with 30 wounded and 10 missing, and 1,500 families were held hostage as human shields for a week. Before Syrian government forces retook Sadad by Oct. 31, about 2,500 families had fled.

Rebel militias reportedly murdered Catholic Syrian priest François Murad on June 23. Islamic extremists abducted the Rev. Michael Kayal, 27, of the Armenian Catholic Church in Aleppo, as he rode a bus in February. Greek Orthodox priest Maher Mahfouz was also kidnapped. The Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio was reported missing on July 29. Dall’Oglio’s disappearance came three months after the kidnapping of the Greek Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox archbishops of Aleppo. Paul Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church and Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church were kidnapped near the village of Kafr Dael on April 22 while returning from the Turkish border on a humanitarian relief trip.

Initially kidnappings of Christians in Syria were largely aimed at seeking ransom. But as Al Qaeda-linked groups established themselves in areas with sizable Christian populations, they began targeting Christians, threatening that they must convert to Islam or face rape, torture, murder and other aggression. Swedish journalist Nuri Kino told Morning Star News that kidnappings, rapes and forcible conversions to Islam were common.

During the 12-month period ending Oct. 31, according to Christian support organization Open Doors, 2,123 Christians were reported to have been killed for their faith in Syria.

3 – Morsi Rule in Egypt, and His Ouster, Result in Attacks on Christians

Coptic Christian hurt in attack on St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in April. (Morning Star News)

Coptic Christian hurt in attack on St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in April. (Morning Star News)

Even before the deposing of Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt triggered widespread attacks against Christians, Islamic extremist violence against Coptic Christians reached a shocking a new high during his tenure.

Attacks in 2013 were more brazen as well as more frequent than in previous years, according to rights groups. More than 200 Muslim rioters attacked Coptic Christians attending a funeral service on April 7 at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo for four Copts killed two days earlier in an anti-Christian rampage. A Morning Star News reporter inside the cathedral compound observed firearms, flash-bang grenades, tear gas, stones, fire bombs and other improvised weapons used against Christians as police did nothing to stop the attack. Police also fired tear gas grenades into the compound. Almost three dozen Coptic Christians suffered injuries, and one was thought to have been killed; Mahrous Hanna Ibrahim reportedly died from gunshot wounds. The cathedral compound is the headquarters of the Coptic Orthodox Church, site of the Coptic pope’s home and a unifying symbol for Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians alike.

Some 30 million people began demonstrations against Morsi on June 30, but Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers singled out Christians to blame for his forced removal from power on July 3, and attacks began. Four Coptic Christians were killed near Luxor on July 5 in Al Dabaya, including 42-year-old Emil Naseem Saroufeem, a supporter of the opposition movement, and 20 homes were destroyed. By July 8, dozens of homes and businesses were burned to the ground, a handful of church buildings were attacked, and one church guest-house was destroyed, human rights activists said. On July 6 in Arish in Northern Sinai, masked gunmen shot and killed the Rev. Mina Aboud Sharubim, a Coptic priest.

On Aug. 6, a Coptic Christian girl walking home from a Bible class at her church was shot and killed in Cairo by an unidentified gunman. Rights groups said 10-year-old Jessica Boulous was killed while walking from church through a market to her home with her Sunday school teacher.

After Egyptian police cleared two pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo on Aug. 14-15 in confrontations that quickly escalated into gunfire, violence erupted throughout Egypt that reportedly resulted in attacks on 44 church buildings and scores of Christian institutions, businesses and homes. At least two Coptic Christians were killed. The attacks were scattered across the country, from The Church of Mar-Girgis, which was attacked in Arish in the northeast Sinai Peninsula, to churches in Giza outside of Cairo, to churches and religious facilities in Upper Egypt. Most of the attacks happened in Minya Governorate, with the city of Assiut following close behind.

On Oct. 20, a drive-by, machine-gun attack on Coptic Christians filing into the Church of the Holy Virgin and the Archangel Michael in Giza, in the Al-Warraq area of greater Cairo, for a wedding killed four people, including the mother of the groom, 62-year-old Camilia Helmy Attyia. Also killed were Mariam Ashraf Mesiha, 8; Mariam Nabil Fahmy Azer, 12; and Samir Fahmy Azer, 46. Hours after the two assailants on a motorcycle sprayed the waiting crowd outside the church building with bullets, the couple was married very late that night, dressed in mourning black, the brother of the groom told Morning Star News. Three people attended the ceremony.

In the course of the year, at least 83 Christians in Egypt were killed for their faith, according to the World Watch List of Christian support organization Open Doors.

4 – Unprecedented Church Bombing in Pakistan

Woman injured in attack on church in Peshawar, Pakistan. (Morning Star News)

Woman injured in attack on church in Peshawar, Pakistan. (Morning Star News)

Suspected Islamic extremists detonated explosives outside a venerable 19th century church building in a suicide bombing on Sept. 22 as more than 300 parishioners were eating on the front lawn after Sunday worship, killing more Christians in a single attack than any in the modern history of Pakistan. The number of people killed in the blasts at All Saints Church in Peshawar, capital of Pakistani Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province bordering Afghanistan, remained inconclusive, with figures ranging from 85 to 127. Some 170 people were reportedly wounded. An Islamic terrorist group called Jundullah claimed responsibility for the attack, vowing to kill more non-Muslims on Pakistani territory, but it is not usually active in the area and questions remain about the actual perpetrators.

With Islamic extremist groups increasingly active in the country and a widespread rash of “blasphemy” cases concocted against Christians, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom had warned that risk to Pakistan’s minorities had reached crisis levels. Pakistan is nearly 96 percent Muslim, according to Operation World, with Christians making up 2.45 percent of the population.

5 – Somalia Violence Seeps into Kenya

Fire damage to Salvation Army Church in Mombasa, Kenya. (Morning Star News)

Fire damage to Salvation Army Church in Mombasa, Kenya. (Morning Star News)

Somali Islamic extremist rebel group Al Shabaab took the lives of at least five Christians in Somalia in 2013, including the widow of a Christian slain for his faith in December 2012, leaving the couple’s five children orphaned. The Islamic extremist rebels pulled 42-year-old Fartun Omar from a bus and shot her to death on April 13 in Buulodbarde, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Beledweyne, sources said. Al Shabaab had been searching for her for several months, knowing she was a secret Christian like her late husband, Mursal Isse Siad. The oldest of their five children was 15 at the time of her death.

Al Shabaab came under the control of a faction that emphasizes international terrorist strikes, and some of its attacks occurred in Kenya. The rebel group, which has joined with Al Qaeda, attacked the upscale Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya on Sept. 21, killing at least 67 people, with dozens still unaccounted for. The assailants killed those they could identify as non-Muslims.

More Al Shabaab militants have been driven out of Somalia by Kenyan-led African Union forces, and other connections to Al Shabaab have resulted in violence in Kenya. Responding to the shooting death on Oct. 3 of hard-line sheikh Ibrahim Omar and three others, Muslim youths from the Masjid Musa Mosque shouting “Allahu Akbar [God is Greater]” set fire to the Salvation Army Church building the following afternoon in the Majengo area on the outskirts of the coastal city of Mombasa. Omar was a student of sheikh Aboud Rogo, also mysteriously killed in his vehicle on the same road in August 2012, who had been accused of aiding in recruitment and funding for Al Shabaab.

Muslim leaders accused police of killing hard-line imam Omar as part of a campaign against Islamists following authorities’ much-criticized handling of the assault on the Westgate mall. At the Musa Mosque, some 200 meters from the burned Salvation Army Church building, Omar regularly “issued incendiary sermons against non-Muslims,” The Standard newspaper reported. According to Kenya’s National Intelligence Service, the imam had invited jihadists from Somalia to bomb targets in Nairobi and Mombasa in retaliation for the killing of Rogo.

On Oct. 19, pastor Charles Matole of Vikwantani Redeemed Gospel Church in Mombasa, Kenya was shot to death as he studied the Bible in his church building before worship services the next day. The pastor had told his wife and others that he had received threatening text messages and that his life was in danger. On Oct. 20, another pastor was killed in Kilifi, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Mombasa. Ebrahim Kidata of East African Pentecostal Church appeared to have been strangled and left in some bushes, authorities said. The murders come on the heels of rioting in Mombasa by Muslims enraged at the killing of sheikh Omar and the three others; a church leader in Mombasa said Muslims have accused churches of being “quiet” about the murders of Omar and his predecessor.

In Mrima village near the coastal town of Likoni, Mombasa District, assailants on a motorbike threw an explosive device into a church compound in southeastern Kenya on June 9, injuring 15 people. Two pastors were among the wounded from the explosion at an evangelistic service of Earthquake Miracle Ministries Church. Both legs of Assistant Pastor Collins Maseno were broken in the blast, and Senior Pastor Dominic Osano sustained serious injuries to his hand and the back of his neck. A 10-year-old boy, Dominic Maseno, was reportedly among the injured.

Al Shabaab, which has been designated a terrorist organization by several Western governments, seeks to impose a strict version of sharia (Islamic law) on Somalia. Kenya is nearly 83 percent Christian and 8.32 percent Muslim, according to Operation World.

6 – Sudan Steps Up ‘Religious Cleansing’

Thousands of Nuba Mountain civilians have taken refuge from government bombing in caves. (Diocese of El Obeid photo)

Thousands of Nuba Mountain civilians have taken refuge from government bombing in caves. (Diocese of El Obeid photo)

Sudan stepped up its campaign to rid the country of Christianity last year – expelling foreign Christians, bulldozing church buildings on the pretext that they belonged to South Sudanese, arresting church leaders and bombing predominantly Christian civilians in South Kordofan. Many foreign Christians left or were deported.

Besides raiding Christian bookstores and arresting Christians, authorities threatened to kill South Sudanese Christians who do not leave or cooperate with them in their effort to find other Christians. Harassment, arrests and persecution of Christians intensified since the secession of South Sudan in July 2011, when President Omar al-Bashir vowed to adopt a stricter version of sharia (Islamic law) and recognize only Islamic culture and the Arabic language. In a report issued in April, Christian Solidarity Worldwide noted an increase in arrests, detentions and deportations of Christians since December 2012. The organization also reported that systematic targeting of Nuba and other ethnic groups suggests the resurgence of an official policy of “Islamization and Arabization.”

Since April 2012 Sudan has dropped 1,338 bombs on civilians in South Kordofan state, according to online news portal Nuba Reports, run by aid worker Ryan Boyette, who remained in South Kordofan after his Christian humanitarian organization was forced to evacuate when military conflict escalated in 2011. The Nuba people in Sudan’s South Kordofan state believe the government’s goal of quashing rebels is also meant to rid the area of non-Arabs and Christianity.

Thousands of civilians have reportedly taken refuge in Nuba Mountain caves in South Kordofan, which borders South Sudan.

The Nuba people have longstanding complaints against Khartoum – including neglect, oppression and forced conversions to Islam in a 1990s jihad – but as Sudanese citizens on the northern side of the border, they were never given the option of secession in the 2005 peace pact between northern and southern Sudan.

7 – Egyptians Slain in Libya

Ezzat Hakim Atallah's widow, Ragaa Abdallah (with ponytail) collapses with grief upon arrival to airport in Cairo. (Morning Star News)

Ezzat Hakim Atallah’s widow, Ragaa Abdallah (with ponytail) collapses with grief upon arrival to airport in Cairo. (Morning Star News)

Islamic extremists killed three Egyptian Christians for their faith. Repeated electrical shock torture of an Egyptian Christian accused of “proselytizing” in Libya likely exacerbated his heart ailment, leading to his death in custody, according to sources close to the deceased. Ezzat Hakim Atallah died on March 10 in a Tripoli jail while in the custody of an Islamic militia group known as the Preventative Security Unit. He was 45.  

Atallah was arrested without being formally charged in Benghazi on Feb. 13 as Preventative Security was rounding up expatriate Christians and accusing them of spreading Christianity to Muslims. The group is an internal police force formed during the Libyan Revolution by regional rebel leaders. Libyan authorities told his family he collapsed in jail and that he died of high blood pressure. The embassy of Egypt, a country where a majority believes those who leave Islam should receive the death penalty, has claimed he likely died of “natural causes.” Besides wife, Ragaa Abdallah, Atallah is survived by a 15-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter.

One Protestant clergy member who works directly with Christians in Libya said the climate toward Christians in the country has changed dramatically over the past few years. “Now in Libya they don’t like Christians, they don’t tolerate them,” he said. “They know there are many Muslims that are becoming Christians. And because of it, all Christian workers are in danger.”

On a rural road in Derna District in northeastern Libya on Wednesday (Sept. 25), Muslims robbed two Egyptian Christians living in Libya, then tied up and shot them to death after the two Copts refused their demand to convert to Islam, relatives said. After the Muslims surrounded Waleed Saad Shaker, 25, and Nash’at Shenouda Ishaq, 27, and robbed and beat them, they demanded that Shaker and Ishaq recite the shahada, the declaration of conversion to Islam. When the two Orthodox Coptic Christians refused, the Muslims tied them up and shot them, relatives said.

Later that day, a shepherd found Shaker and Ishaq in the desert, and they were taken to Derna Hospital. Shaker was dead upon arrival at the hospital, according to a member of Ishaq’s family who requested anonymity. Gamel Saleem, a cousin of Shaker who saw his body, said the skull had been beaten in. Shaker’s death certificate identifies injuries to his head as the cause of death.

Ishaq initially survived the attack, and before he died he was able to give details about the assault to a relative, also resident in Libya. Escorting the body back to Upper Egypt for burial, the relative relayed the details to Ishaq’s family and the Shaker family.

Ishaq is survived by a wife and two children, ages 6 and 3.

8 - Islamist Take-over in Central African Republic Brings Atrocities

Central African Republic (CIA Factbook map)

Central African Republic (CIA Factbook map)

Islamist rebels took control of the Christian-majority Central African Republic (CAR) in March through a coalition of 25,000 fighters called Seleka, consisting primarily of foreign mercenaries from Chad and Sudan. Seleka attacked priests, pastors, nuns, church buildings and other Christian institutions unprovoked. The leader of CAR’s Evangelical Alliance, the Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyame, who is part of the National Transitional Council, joined other Christian leaders lamenting persecution of Christians, complaining of “massive and unprecedented violations of human rights in the form of large-scale looting … killings and murders, threats and intimidation, abductions, torture and summary executions, rape of women including nuns, desecration of churches and religious institutions and violence against servants of God.”

Self-proclaimed President Michel Djotodia on Sept. 13 announced the “dissolution” of Seleka in a bid to excuse himself from inability to control them; he said they would be treated as “bandits,” though they have continued to kill and pillage without opposition from state security forces that Djotodia said would be responsible for law enforcement. Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Religious Liberty Commission, on Aug. 15 called for an immediate end to the breakdown of law and order, saying in a press statement that the assaults “highlight the targeting of Christians.” Muslims account for less than 14 per cent of CAR’s population of about 4.5 million people, according to Operation World.

9 – Christian Dies in Custody in Vietnam

Hoang Van Ngai was remembered as a kind, generous man who helped the poor. (Morning Star News)

Hoang Van Ngai was remembered as a kind, generous man who helped the poor. (Morning Star News)

Vietnamese officials insisted on calling the death of a Christian in police custody a suicide, though family members presented strong evidence that he was killed. Hoang Van Ngai, also identified by his Hmong name of Vam Ngaij Vaj, died on March 17 in custody in Gia Nghia, Dak Nong Province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands after police arrested him, his brother and their wives without any charges.

Ngai, a 38-year-old father of four who was a lay church leader, had angered some government officials by finding ways for the Bui Tre Church to keeping functioning, as the officials had forbidden it to meet from 2000 to 2003; he refused to pay expected bribes and otherwise “strongly resisted their abuse of power,” his brother Hoang Van Pa stated in a report to government officials and church leaders.

Vietnamese officials have tried to suppress information contained in Pa’s report, which states that on March 18 officers at the Gia Nghia police station explained to family members and friends that he had purposely electrocuted himself by sticking his hand in an electrical socket.

Family members pointed out that more than 300 witnesses who viewed Ngai’s body concurred with Pa’s report that it had “many bruises and contusions on his throat, back, and head, and deep cuts on his body and his skull smashed.” Family members further assert that Ngai, a building contractor, merchant and farmer whose four children range in age from 7 to 15, had no reason to commit suicide. Before his incarceration, Ngai was an exceptionally strong and healthy man.

10 – U.S.-Iranian Pastor’s Prison Sentence Upheld

Saeed Abedini and wife Nagmeh. (ACLJ)

Saeed Abedini and wife Nagmeh. (ACLJ)

Iran on Aug. 26 upheld the eight-year prison sentence of pastor Saeed Abedini, convicted of threatening “national security” by practicing Christianity, in spite of international calls for his release. Various countries’ quiet diplomatic efforts accompanied the international protest. The Tehran Court of Appeals upheld the sentence following three months of Iranian courts issuing harsh sentences for several other Christians.

Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, had spoken before the United Nations Human Rights Council on June 5, calling on world leaders to demand his release. Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, said in a statement that the ACLJ will continue to explore options for pressuring the Iranian regime to release the 33-year-old resident of Boise, Idaho (see www.SaveSaeed.org).

Abedini was sentenced on Jan. 27 for threatening “national security,” a catch-all phrase often used by Iranian courts to imprison converts from Islam for various sorts of evangelistic activities.

In late April he was put into solitary confinement for several weeks following a “peaceful, silent protest” in an outside courtyard with other prisoners over the lack of medical care and threats against visiting family members. Abedini suffers severe internal bleeding from beatings.

He was accused of planting house churches from 2000 to 2005. Although there is no law against house churches, the government termed his involvement a threat to “national security,” even though he had ceased such work after agreeing in 2009 to limit his ministry to humanitarian work. Abedini has traveled back and forth between the United States and Iran since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2010. He has made over nine humanitarian trips to Iran since 2009 and planned to establish an orphanage on his most recent trip when he was arrested. He was working with his family’s non-profit organization, whose Farsi name translates to “Morning Star,” which works to house and educate orphans.

Abedini’s family members assert that the charge for his original arrest – that he was working with illegal church groups – is not only unjust but false. No criminal law in Iran penalizes private religious gatherings in a person’s home, regardless of whether they are affiliated with a church, they say.

Moreover, Naghmeh Abedini has said that the house church he was working with before 2005 was legal at the time because it was sponsored by a legally recognized church.

In March, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for his release, as did U.S. State Department officials at the United Nations. Organizations that have publicly called for his release include the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, which raised Abedini’s case at the U.N. Human Rights Council. The European Union also demanded at the United Nations that Iran release him.

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