Christmas Marred for Christians

Concerns Over Hostility in Some Islamic Countries

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JAN. 17, 2010 ( Christmas was far from peaceful for Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt. Six teenage male Copts were killed as they left Midnight Mass early in the morning on Jan. 7, which was Christmas Day according to the Coptic calendar.

As well, a Muslim guard died and nine people were wounded by gunmen firing from a car outside the Church of the Virgin Mary in the town of Naq Hamadi, reported the Associated Press on Jan. 7.

Following the killings there were clashes between police and crowds of Coptic protestors. Further protests took place last Wednesday, when around 2,000 Coptic Orthodox Christians gathered outside the Cathedral of Abbasiya, Egypt’s largest church, reported Reuters on Jan. 13.

According to the report, three suspects turned themselves in after the shootings. As well, security forces arrested a further 16 Muslims and 13 Christians following riots in Naq Hamadi.

In a Jan. 9 report, Archbishop Youhannes Zakaria, the Coptic Catholic Bishop of Luxor, told the news agency Fides that the security situation had improved, but he also asked for prayers from Christians around the world.

«There was also a positive meeting held between Christian and Muslim religious leaders in which they reaffirmed their universal commitment to peace and reconciliation,» he told Fides.

Archbishop Zakaria explained that in the villages Christians and Muslims generally live together peacefully, but that there is an extremist minority who are trying to undermine this coexistence. 


Christians account for about 10% of Egypt’s predominantly Muslim population of around 78 million and they face considerable difficulties in being able to freely practice their faith.

One thorny issue is that of conversions. On Dec. 10, Reuters published a story about the case of Ayman Raafa, an Egyptian born a Christian, but who when he was nine months old automatically became a Muslim when his father converted to Islam.

Now aged 23, Raafa is fighting a legal battle to get the state to recognize that he is a Christian. He is one of a group of 40 men who have filed a lawsuit so that their national ID can show that they are Christians.

Reuters quoted their lawyer, Peter El-Naggar, who said that children of converts away from Islam usually don’t get approval for a new ID card stating their Christian faith. By contrast, if someone converts to Islam their identity card is normally changed within 24 hours, he said.

Freedom of expression is another problem. Last Nov. 9, Compass Direct News reported on the situation of a Coptic Christian blogger in Egypt who has been in prison for more than a year without charge.

Hani Nazeer, a 28-year-old high school social worker from Qena, Egypt, is the author of the blog «Karz El Hob.» He got into trouble with authorities when some teenagers visited his blog and clicked on a link that led them to a copy of «Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,» a novel written under the pseudonym Father Utah. The book is a response to «Azazil,» a novel by Yusuf Zidane, critical of Christianity, according to Compass News Direct.

Despite not being charged, Nazeer has been placed in prison with convicted criminals. He also claims that prison authorities have pressured him to convert to Islam.


Another country where Christians are under pressure from Islam is Malaysia. Just after Christmas, tensions rose over the use of the word Allah to describe God in Christian texts.

The issue has been a point of conflict for some time, as a Dec. 17 report by Australia Network News explained. 

In 2007, the Catholic Church launched a legal challenge on behalf of the Catholic Herald, a weekly publication distributed amongst Malaysia’s 850,000 Catholics. This came about due to a position taken by the Malaysian government that the word should be used exclusively by Muslims. 

The case came to a head when on New Year’s Eve, the Malaysian High Court ruled that Catholics should be allowed to use the term Allah. The verdict potentially upholds the constitutional right of the Church’s weekly Herald newspaper to refer to Jesus Christ as the son of Allah, the Wall Street Journal noted in its Jan. 4 report.

The article also commented that Allah has been used by Malay-speaking Christians for centuries. Indeed it is commonly used by Christians in Arabic-speaking countries.

Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, was reported by the Wall Street Journal as saying that there’s no other appropriate term for God in Malay.

After the ruling, protests immediately broke out and as a result the high court suspended its ruling pending an appeal, Agence France Presse reported Jan. 6.

The report said that Father Andrew warned of a campaign of intimidation including hacker attacks against the weekly’s Web site. «We believe these actions (are designed) to create a climate of fear and a perceived threat to national security so as to pressure the court in reversing its decision,» he said in a statement.

Churches attacked

The days following the court decision saw a series of attacks against Christian churches in Malaysia. The Protestant Metro Tabernacle Church, located in a suburb of the capital Kuala Lumpur, was destroyed in a fire, reported the Associated Press, Jan. 7.

Two other churches were also attacked, noted a report the same day by Reuters. Firebombs were tossed into the compound of the Assumption Catholic church and the Life Chapel Protestant church — in the outlying district of Petaling Jay; fortunately both failed to explode.

This was followed by arson attacks at a convent school and an Anglican church in the city of Taiping, the Washington Post reported on Jan. 9.

«We are alarmed with the escalation of violence and urge the authorities to take this seriously,» Reverend Hermen Shastri, secretary-general to the Council of Churches Malaysia, told Reuters.

Just afterward firebombs were thrown at two more churches and another church was daubed with black paint, according to a Jan. 10 report by the Associated Press. 

«Christians are praying and not responding to the provocations,» the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur told Fides in a Jan. 9 report. Archbishop Murphy Pakiam said: «We want to be a community that lives in dialogue and spreads peace throughout the nation.»

On Jan. 11 Fides reported that the Malaysian bishops’ conference declared that: «We must act in harmony and seek the necessary cooperation of the government and the high religious authorities in order to restore a peaceful environment to Malaysian society.»

The attacks continue, nevertheless. On Jan. 14 the Associated Press reported that vandals splashed the Church of St. Elizabeth in southern Johor state with red paint. It was the 10th church attacked or vandalized in the wave of violence following the court decision. As well, burglars ransacked the offices of the law firm defending Christians in their fight to use the term Allah.

No to violence

In his Sunday Angelus message of Jan. 10, Benedict XVI condemned the use of violence. He did not mention specific countries, but said that he was concerned over violence against migrants and in other countries.

A few days earlier there were violent conflicts between locals and African migrants in the Italian town of Rosamo, Calabria, in the south of Italy.

«Violence must never be the way for anyone to solve problems,» the Pontiff urged.

«The difficulty is first of all a human one! I invite everyone to look into the face of the other and to see that he has a soul, a story and a life: He is a person and God loves him as he loves me,» the Pope concluded. 

Words that only too often go unheeded in many countries.

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