Monday, May 6, 2013

Chen Guangcheng case a wind gauge for the persecuted Church

China (MNN) ― The Chinese government is reportedly attacking the family of a blind human rights activist.

Chen Guangcheng is known for speaking out against forced abortions and China's one-child policy. His escape from house arrest last year brought shame to the Chinese government. Since then, they've been instigating violence against his family.

According to a report from China Aid Association, the home of Guangcheng's eldest brother has come under multiple attacks. Early last week, government-hired thugs drove up to the home and started throwing beer bottles and bricks at it.

Chen Kegui, one of Guangcheng's nephews, is currently in jail suffering from appendicitis, and authorities haven't offered him surgery. Reportedly, U.S. Secretary of Defense John Kerry plans to raise the case with senior Chinese officials.

China Aid is also helping Guangcheng get justice. They've helped the activist since his escape from China, with ChinaAid founder and president Bob Fu acting as an informal liaison between Guangcheng and the U.S. government.

Now, ChinaAid is calling people to act as a proxy for Guangcheng's family. Check out our Featured Links section to see how you can help.

Although Chen Guangcheng is not a Christ-follower, underground church leaders told the Wall Street Journal his case has become an anemometer. They're watching the development of Guangcheng's case to see how far China's Communist government will go to punish those it views as a threat.

Pray that no matter what happens, the Gospel will keep going forward in China. Pray the faith of Chinese believers remains strong.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

North Korea Sentences U.S. Citizen to 15 Years Hard Labor

He is said to be a 'Devout Christian'

By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA (ANS) -- Kenneth Bae, a 44-year-old tour operator from Lynnwood, Washington state, who is said to be a "devout Christian," has been sentenced to 15 years of compulsory hard labor, after being tried by North Korea's highest court for unspecified "hostile acts" against the country.

Kenneth Bae has been sentenced
to 15 years' hard labor 
(Photograph: Yonhap/Reuters)
According to a story by Alastair Gale in the Wall Street Journal (, "North Korea has provided no details of the alleged crime committed by Mr. Bae, but activists in Seoul say he was interested in bringing attention to humanitarian issues and may have been detained for possessing images of vagrant North Korean children. Groups of orphans, known as 'kotjebi,' or wandering swallows, are found throughout North Korea."

He went on to say, "Last week, North Korea said Mr. Bae had committed crimes 'aimed to topple' the government, a charge that could have brought the death penalty. There was no explanation for the apparent lesser charge.

"The sentence for Mr. Bae complicates efforts by the U.S. and South Korea to lower tensions on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang is thought to be preparing for a possible missile test from its east coast and has shut down a joint industrial zone with the South."

The story continued by saying that Mr. Bae entered Rason, a North Korean special economic zone bordering China and Russia, with a tour group in November and was detained soon afterward. Mr. Bae, who was born in South Korea and is based in China, is a regular visitor to
a kotjebi boy smoking
"Mr. Bae has been supporting an orphanage and running a bakery with the North Korean authorities' agreement," said Do Hee-yoon, a member of Seoul-based activist group Citizen's Coalition for the Human Rights of North Korean Refugees. "But he is being detained for taking pictures of North Korean homeless children."

The U.S. State Department has called for Mr. Bae's release on humanitarian grounds and says he met with officials from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang last Friday. The U.S., which has no diplomatic links with North Korea, is represented by Sweden in the country.

Gale said that a group led by Google Inc. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in January attempted to meet Mr. Bae during a trip to North Korea but were denied access.

"In recent years, former U.S. presidents have traveled to North Korea to secure the release of detained American citizens. South Korean media reported Thursday that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was seeking a visit to North Korea that may be part of a move to bring Mr. Bae back," he wrote.

"Mr. Carter secured the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes in 2010, after the U.S. citizen was found guilty of similar alleged crimes. Mr. Carter's office wasn't available for comment on the media reports."
A North Korean guard brutally kicking a prisoner in a labor camp
Mr. Bae was born in South Korea and is a naturalized U.S. citizen, according to an account on the University of Oregon's Daily Emerald website. He was a student at the university from 1988 to 1990, but didn't graduate, the Daily Emerald reported.

Michelle FlorCruz of International Business Times (, said that according to the regime's state-run news outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, they had referred to Bae by his Korean name, Pae Jun-ho, the Washington resident was arrested last November in Rason, a city located in the DPRK's far northeastern region that borders China and Russia.

"Friends of Bae described him as a devout Christian who was based in the coastal city of Dalian, China, traveling frequently between countries to help feed the orphans in North Korea," she wrote.

"Previous reports suggested that Bae, who worked as a tour operator in Washington, was being accused of attempting to overthrow the North Korean government and of possibly taking pictures of starving children in the country. Other reports suggest his religious affiliations may have also had something to do with his arrest."

She went on to say, "Bobby Lee and Dennis Kwon are two of Bae's friends who have dedicated the past few months to getting their friend back home. According to the Oregonian, the three arrived in Eugene, Ore., from South Korea during the fall of 1988, to beginning their first semester at the University of Oregon.

"It doesn't surprise Lee that Bae was in North Korea trying to help bring attention to the many ills in North Korean society given that he was very involved in humanitarian causes on campus."

Lee said of his friend, "He wanted people to feel welcome on campus. Ken was part of the team that helped put on these events."

"Knowing Ken from college, he's such a warm-hearted person," Kwon said. "I can't imagine him really breaking the law. ... He probably couldn't walk away from what he saw [in North Korea]."

FlorCruz went on to say, "The three became fast friends, involving themselves in various student groups that helped tutor disadvantaged students and other humanitarian efforts. Bae later dropped out of the university to start working and support his family, but the trio still remained close. In 1990, Kwon was even Bae's best man at his wedding.

A young guard watching over a labor camp

"Now, 23 years later, Lee and Kwon are still standing by their friend. The two have started a Facebook page trying to keep the pressure on authorities to help free their detained friend."

"We're going to make sure he is not forgotten," Lee said.

"We're trying to understand the process in North Korea, which of course is not exactly transparent," 

Lee said, discussing their approach in getting Bae back to safety. "I think our actions and strategy will evolve over time, because we're still learning."

The U.S. State Department addressed Bae's harsh sentencing in a media briefing Wednesday, saying that his case was probably conducted unfairly considering no one from the Swedish embassy, the U.S.'s proxy representative, was present.

Patrick Ventrell of the State Department declared that Pyongyang should release Bae on amnesty. "I think he needs to know we do care," Lee said. "And that we absolutely love him."

Lucy Williamson of BBC News (, Seoul, South Korea, said, "On the face of it, North Korea's decision to sentence a US citizen to 15 years' hard labor seems to be a direct challenge to Washington: another twist in the cycle of actions and rhetoric that have helped keep relations so tense over the past two months."

She said that "he not the first American citizen to be arrested or tried in North Korea. Over the past few years, Pyongyang has detained two American journalists, a businessman, an English teacher and an activist.

Some were tried and sentenced to hard labor. But all were released following negotiations - some of which involved unofficial visits by high-profile Americans like former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton."

North Korea watches believes that this might be North Korea's latest attend to draw U.S. negotiators to Pyongyang.

"That would give North Korea a domestic propaganda victory, and it might also pave the way for more broader, more official, talks on the wider issues," added Williamson.

The BBC provided this list of recent U.S. detainees in North Korea:

* Eddie Jun Yong-su: Businessman detained for six months in 2011, freed after a visit led by US envoy Robert King

* Aijalon Mahli Gomes: Teacher and Christian jailed in 2010 for eight years over illegal entry via China - freed after Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang

* Robert Park: US activist crossed into North Korea via China in late 2009 - freed in 2010 by North Korea
* Laura Ling/Euna Lee: Jailed in 2009 for 12 years over illegal entry via the Chinese border - freed after Bill Clinton met Kim Jong-il

Analysts suggest Pyongyang could be using the jailed American as leverage. North Korea has arrested several US citizens in recent years, including journalists and Christians accused of proselytizing.

They were released after intervention from high-profile American figures, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, both of whom went to Pyongyang.

However, media reports say that Mr Carter has no plans to travel to North Korea to intervene in this case, a spokeswoman said.

"President Carter has not had an invitation to visit North Korea and has no plans to visit," Deanna Congileo said in an email.

North Korea defector Kwon Hyo-jin told Reuters he believes Mr Bae will not be incarcerated in a slave labor camp similar to the one Mr Kwon was locked up in for several years.

Dan Wooding and South Korean pastor, David Cho, by statue of Kim Il Sung in North Korea
"If an American served jail together with North Korean inmates, which won't happen, he could tell them about capitalism or economic developments," Mr Kwon, who defected to South Korea in 2009, said.

"That would be the biggest mistake for North Korea."

One a personal note, having been to North Korea as a journalist, I would ask our many friends to pray for the speedy release of our Christian brother from this land that the Open Doors World Watch List for 2013 has described as the "World Worst Persecutor of Christians."

The country has held the top spot in the persecution list for the past 11 years now, and has been widely condemned for its human rights abuses and infringements on religious freedom.


Christians in Morocco Fear Fatwa Signifies Harsher Treatment

Converts unsettled by call for execution of those who leave Islam

By Jeremy Reynalds
Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service

CAIRO, EGYPT (ANS) -- A Moroccan fatwa calling for the execution of those who leave Islam has left many Christian converts in turmoil.

According to a story by Morning Star News, there is still a lot of debate over how the fatwa, which only recently came to light after the government's top authority on Islam issued it last year, could change laws in Morocco.

But a Moroccan Christian convert active in the house church movement said many former Muslims who are now Christians fear for their lives.

"The fatwa showed us that our country is still living in the old centuries - no freedom, no democracy," he said. "Unfortunately, we feel that we aren't protected. We can be arrested or now even killed any time and everywhere."

Morning Star News reported that the Marrakech resident, who requested anonymity, said many Moroccan converts feel the same way.

"The majority of the Christian Moroccan leaders have the same feeling," Morning Star News reported he said. "We are more followed now by the secret police than before. Only the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ gives us courage and peace."

The governmental High Council of Ulemas, the highest religious authority in Morocco, issued the ruling last year, but only released it in April upon request of the government's Delegation for Human Rights of Morocco, according to Arabic-language daily Akhbar al-Youm. The human rights delegation was seeking clarification on the Islamic stance on freedom of religion.

But Mahjoub El Hiba, a senior human rights official in the government, denied there was any such request to the Moroccan Press Agency, Morocco's official government news service.

In a publication explaining its ruling, Morning Star News reported the high council said it based its decision in part on verses from the Koran, and in part on verses from the Hadith - one that quotes Muhammad, Islam's prophet, as saying, "If somebody [a Muslim] discards his religion, kill him." (Sahih al-Bukhari 3017)

Islamic scholars use the Hadith, also known as the "Sayings and Deeds of the Prophet," along with the Koran as a basis for determining sharia (Islamic law).

Morning Star News said me mbers of the high council are appointed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, which is led at least in theory by King Mohammed VI. But the high council is essentially an advisory body, has no connection to Morocco's criminal judicial system and cannot enforce its ruling.

Whether the fatwa will have any effect on Moroccan criminal law remains to be seen - there are too many variables, said a representative of Middle East Concern, an advocacy group for persecuted Christians..

"A fatwa doesn't automatically become part of the criminal law," Morning Star News reported the representative said. "The fatwa doesn't all of the sudden become an amendment or an addendum to the penal code; that's why we don't actually know what it's going to look like in practice or principle. We can't say it's actually going to affect people, because we don't know."

Laws in Morocco

However, Morning Star News said, the ruling could still represent a major shift with in the government. Apostasy isn't currently against the law in Morocco.

According to Christian converts in Morocco and some advocacy groups that help them, even if the ruling never becomes law, it sets a dangerous precedent for how converts and Christians in general will be treated in Morocco.

Morning Star News said if leaving Islam is seen as an act worthy of death, then "proselytizing," which is illegal, could be treated as a much more serious issue.

Article 220 of the Moroccan Penal Code bans proselytizing, which carries a penalty of between six months and three years in prison and a fine of up to 500 dirhams (US$60). Part of the code forbids using material incentives to persuade someone to change their religion.

Morning Star News said in addition to a possible crackdown on sharing their faith, Christians fear law enforcement officials who may be uncertain about how to deal with apostates may opt for harsh treatment of converts because of the fatwa. Christian converts in Morocco say police already h arass them.

"The oppression is everywhere," the Marrakech Christian said. "The police follow us or arrest us everywhere."

Morning Star News said a Christian of European nationality who went into Morocco for more than 10 years to help converts before the government banned him said the fatwa sets a tone for more persecution.

"It will give the secret police a tool to persecute Moroccan Christians," he said. "It will certainly increase persecution - I'm sure."

He added that he thinks the fatwa will be used to discourage converts from being able to express their faith to others.

"For those who are already Christian, it can increase their burden, but it will really put the threat on any type of outreach and evangelism," Morning Star News reported he said.

Morning Star News said apostasy in Morocco is complicated by the fact that Islam is the official religion of the state, and the king of Morocco, whose titles include, "The Defender of the Faithful," is seen as the leader of Muslims in Mor occo. With politics and religion thus essentially united, spiritual quests can be seen as an act of political dissent or even treason.

Punishment for Leaving Islam

Experts say it is difficult to make across-the-board generalizations about how converts are treated in Morocco. The way they are treated depends on factors such as age, economic standing, whether they live in rural or urban areas and, most importantly, how outspoken they are about their faith..

Morning Star News said according to the MEC expert, older Christians who are economically secure, live in a large city and are mostly private about their faith will be persecuted less than other converts. The representative said persecution comes in many different forms, much of it harassment from family members humiliated that someone in their family became a Christian.

The European expatriate, a pastor, said almost all converts experience some sort of harassment by police as well. It is known as a second baptis m of sorts for new Christians.

"When a Moroccan comes to Christ, sooner or later, they are going to be confronted by the police," Morning Star News reported he said. "It's what they call 'police baptism.' Police baptism is what happens when someone gets confronted by the secret police."

The purpose of interrogation is to intimidate Christians into abandoning their new-found faith, the pastor said. In some cases, police have been successful.

Morning Star News said there have been several public instances of harassment and persecution of converts that have gone beyond police interrogation. On Dec. 28, 2005, Christian convert Jamaa Ait Bakrim was sentenced to 15 years in prison for proselytism and for destroying the goods of others by burning two abandoned telephone poles touching his property. He remains in Kenitra Prison.

In March 2010, the government expelled at least 33 Christian foreign residents from the country. Among them were 10 adult Christians, along with their children, who were running The Village of Hope, a foster daycare center for orphans. The foster children were turned over to the care of people they did not know.

In addition to the expulsions, Morning Star News reported, about 81 people were declared "persona non grata" for alleged proselytizing. None have returned. As recently as February, one of those blacklisted tried to gain reentry but was detained and then deported.

There are about 8,000 Moroccan Christians out of a population of almost 35 million people, according to the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report published by the U.S. Department of State.
Moderate Morocco

Morning Star News said Morocco has taken pains to maintain its image as a moderate Islamic country. Any deviation from that image could cost Morocco in foreign trade, tourism revenue and international prestige, but observers believe the laws against proselytizing and the recent fatwa threaten the country's reputation as religiously moderate.

"It is imperative that they are seen in alignment with Wester n standards of freedom of religion," the MEC representative said. "This would be a very significant step away from standards that Morocco has agreed to in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. It would go against the progress that Morocco has made over the past 10 years."

Morning Star News said the expatriate pastor sees the fatwa as part of the region's tide toward "political Islam," and a bid to silence hardline Islamic critics of the regime.

"Arab Spring has become Christian winter," he said.

For more information about Morning Star News go to

Churches campaign ahead of Malaysia elections

Ruling party raises issues of religion and race to win majority Muslim support

Pro-Umno poster. 

Photo: World Watch Monitor
By Matt George

On Sunday, May 5, Malaysians head to the polls for what could be the most critical general elections in the country's history. The ruling coalition, dominated by Umno (the United Malays National Organisation), has been raising issues of religion and race in an effort to win the support of the Malay Muslim majority.

Meanwhile minority Christians in Malaysia are taking a bold political stand. At the behest of their churches, worshippers are being asked to openly pray for political leaders who are honest and uncorrupted, and to elect a government that values liberty and religious freedom.

The message is clear: it is time for a change after 56 years of rule by an Umno Government which stands accused of rampant corruption, breeding a culture of entitlement for privileged Umno politicians and their families, abusing power, and fanning the flames of ethnic and religious bigotry. For the first time, a credible political opposition could conceivably end Umno’s stranglehold on power in the multi-ethnic country, where Christians form 9.2 per cent of the 28-million population.

As the election race intensifies, the campaign is becoming dirty. This week churches were particularly incensed by the latest slur on their faith. Pro-Government election billboards plastered prominent pictures of churches with a message in the Malay language declaring: “Do you want to see your grandchildren praying in Allah’s house? … [Not] if we allow Allah to be used by churches.”

The blatant attempt to pit Muslims against Christians and resurrect Umno’s ban on churches using the word ‘Allah’ to denote their God has outraged the Christian Federation of Malaysia. In an outspoken statement on Tuesday, its chairman, Rev Eu Hong Seng, demanded that the authorities “act swiftly to douse the sparks of such religious fear-mongering from catching fire once more”.

He said: “These fears are real given the recent history of church burnings and threats to burn the Bible in the Malay language.” A church was burnt and several others vandalised in 2009 when the High Court ruled that the Catholic Church had the right to publish the word ‘Allah’ to describe God. The Malay-Muslim Umno Government has appealed against the judicial decision. The opposition supports the right of Christians to use Allah in their liturgy.

Pictures of the billboards went viral on the Internet. This latest scare tactic to drive a wedge between races and religions comes amid a surge in election-related violence. Explosive devices have been planted near rally sites and there have been more than 2000 cases of arson. Motorcycle gangs of Malay Muslims roam towns and venues to intimidate people from attending opposition rallies.

The print and television media, overwhelmingly controlled by Umno or its supporters, has blacked out positive news coverage of the opposition. The latter has also been refused advertising slots in print, the national radio and television stations and cable TV. Its campaign has focused on the digital media – Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, blogs and Google (which has set up a special Malaysian election page) – to get its message across to the nation.

Despite widely reported flagrant abuses of Government largesse in buying votes by giving cash hand-outs and inflating electoral lists with migrant voters who have been given citizenship in lieu of their ballots, growing numbers of people are flocking to opposition rallies.

Into this mix the churches have found common cause with civil society movements demanding clean and fair elections. In an appeal to his flock, the Catholic Bishop of Penang, Sebastian Francis, said: “The upcoming 13th General Election is critical and important for the growth of the democratic structure in Malaysia … Therefore, I join all groups, movements and organisations, whether political, social or religious, to speak up for a free, just and fair election.”
The Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM) meanwhile issued a booklet titled Mobilising Prayer for General Elections 2013, calling on all churches in Malaysia to mobilise prayer for the “spiritual reset of the nation”.

The comprehensive 60-page template lists phases of prayer – from nomination day to eve of polling, polling day to counting of votes, and for the setting up of a stable Federal Cabinet and state governments. Prayer vigils and prayer chains to pass the ‘prayer baton’ around the clock are currently being held.

The booklet also offers practical information for voters to locate polling booths, to use indelible ink, to not allow polling clerks to stain or smudge one’s ballot paper, and to volunteer as election observers. Voters with smartphones are encouraged to shoot videos and pictures in monitoring the fairness of the electoral procedure.

In a separate media campaign, the Catholic Research Council together with the CCM uploaded a video on YouTube reminding viewers “to reflect on their roles as Christian Malaysians and vote for a country whose leaders are honest and uncorrupted, where none is exploited, and for liberty and religious freedom”.

Such action by Malaysian churches is unprecedented. Of concern to the churches and many voters is the spectre of May 13, 1969, when racial riots broke out after the Umno Government lost control of key constituencies including the capital Kuala Lumpur. In response to fears of a violent backlash if the Umno Government loses overall power this Sunday, the churches ask worshippers “to beseech God to stop any attempt to stir up rioting, and that the powers of darkness will have no freedom to advance the cause of evil, injustice and extremism”.


The Camp

Turkey is building a tent city for thousands of Syrian Christians. Why?

Earthwork on the site at Midyat, Turkey, where thousands of Syrian Christians may live.
The Mor Gabriel monastery is in the background, at right.
Photo: Saima Altunkaya for World Watch Monitor

By Nuri Kino

Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria live in camps just inside Turkey. So the April 10 news item from Reuters, announcing the creation of two more camps in Turkish town of Midyat, just beyond Syria’s northeastern border, didn’t seem like much.

But something caught my eye: A camp specifically for Syrian Christians? This was new. Of all the Syrian refugees in Turkey, only a few hundred are Christian. Now they need a camp?

I’m calling clergy and others in Midyat. They can’t agree about the number of refugees it is supposed to shelter. One is saying 10,000 Christians, another 1,000. Reuters says 2,500.

Nowhere in the Islamic world has a refugee camp for the Christians of one country been built across the border in a neighbouring country. Now Turkey is building a camp that will hold between 3 and 30 times the number of Syrian Christians currently taking refuge in the country. Why? Why is Turkey creating a small city to handle a flood of Syrian Christians?

The news reports – what few there were – didn’t say. The only way to get answers is to go to Midyat.

“We’ll be on the same plane, great!” A dentist, previously deeply involved in the Assyrian movement, interrupts me as I am taking notes. He is also on his way to Midyat. He is behind many of the new buildings in southeastern Turkey and has of course heard about the camp. “It was Syriac Orthodox leaders who requested the establishment of a camp; tourist season is about to start and they want to empty the monasteries of refugees.

Otherwise, they may lose donations from visitors, from Sweden, for example.” So, the dentist believes it is about money. “What they hadn’t counted on was that the Turkish government would take the opportunity to build a Muslim camp next to the Christian one. Christian leaders were shocked – but too late, the construction was already underway.”

On the flight from Ankara to Mardin, a town about 70 kilometres west of Midyat, I’m sitting next to the well-known columnist Yavuz Donat of the Turkish daily Sabah. Together with the Turkish Minister of the Interior, Muamer Güler, he has visited some refugee camps. “We have a tradition of hospitality in Turkey, and our refugee camps are of very high international standard. In Midyat, it will be the same.” A doctor friend of Donat shakes his head. “The number of Christian refugees from Syria is grossly exaggerated. Right now there is no need for a camp.”

An hour later, I’m drinking tea from a traditional oval Turkish glass in Deyr ul-Zahfaran, one of the world’s oldest monasteries. Here, Syriac Orthodox believers have practiced their faith for more than 1,500 years. Now the monastery serves three purposes: as a church, a tourist attraction, and on this day, a home for about 50 refugees.
I’m here trying to find out why a Christian refugee camp is being built. In the courtyard drinking tea, I find Syrian Christians arguing the same question.

Jamil Diarbakerli, a local representative of the Assyrian Democratic Organisation, maintains that the persecution of Christians in Syria is exaggerated. “They are just looking for an excuse to leave Syria and escape to Europe,” he says. “As soon as there is a bit of a stir in the Arab world, the Christians seize the opportunity to leave their native countries.” This is upsetting Sargon, a Christian from the Syrian town of Qamishly, a town about 50 kilometres to the south, just across the Turkey border. “What are you talking about? The body of my cousin Alexi Skandar has been lying on a street in Aleppo for more than two weeks. His lacerated corpse has rotted. No one dares to go and get him; if you do you’ll be killed. And he is not alone; many other bodies of Christians are rotting on the streets because Islamists threaten to kill people who want to bury them.”

Diarbakerli won’t give up; he continues to maintain that Christians are not persecuted for the fact they belong to another religion. More Syrian refugees have gathered around by now. They sit quietly listening to Sargon, who has become very irritated. “You are saying this because your party belongs to the opposition; you people don’t want to admit your mistake. You entered this with the idea of helping your people, Assyrians and other Syrian Christians, but fundamentalists and Islamists have taken over the revolution and the opposition. Why do you refuse to see the truth? A group of Islamists entered a Christian home, raped and assaulted a mother and her daughters. When they left, the mother set fire to herself, her daughters and the house.” Diarbakerli replies that this is an isolated case, that there are some Islamists among the opposition but that on the whole it is made up of people who want democracy in Syria. Sargon sighs. The other refugees also sigh. Everyone is quiet.

Suddenly, it’s pouring. We run into one of the two common rooms of the monastery. The refugees go up to the second floor where they have been given sanctuary.

“It’s not time for a camp yet, not for Christians,” Diarbakerli continues. “There are only around 300 of them in all of Turkey. If the situation becomes acute, you can always pitch tents, it’d only take a few hours. I don’t understand why they are taking these drastic steps, why they are building a camp for thousands of people. They should wait.”

But Sargon is more concerned with what’s actually happening in Syria than what might happen in Turkey. “It’s not the henchmen of the regime who persecute us; it’s the Free Syrian Army and their Islamist supporters who want to purge Syria of Christians. There’s no way you can say different.”

Diarbakerli meets Sargon halfway. “Of course there are fundamentalists in Syria; they are everywhere. What we are hoping and working for is that Syria won’t be heading for the same fate as Iraq where over half of the Christians fled. We will, of course, provide shelter to Assyrians and other Christians — not in a Turkish camp, however, but in a humanitarian zone within Syria. Christians have armed and organized themselves in small groupings keeping watch, and to be able to defend themselves if needed. But it is far from sufficient; many more armed men would be needed.”

Sargon takes me to see some of the other refugees on the second floor, two young families with three children each. They affirm that Christian men in northern Syria have armed themselves, guarding Christian enclaves. At most, they are a few hundred.

Later that afternoon, I am summoned to Metropolitan Saliba Özmen’s monastery office. Representatives of three Christian religious denominations have gathered to discuss what kind of help Christian refugees from Syria would need. A Jesuit priest says it upsets him that the small number of refugees in Turkey should be banished to a camp. Christian organizations should be able to provide food and shelter for them. Özmen defends the idea: “We have been taking care of them for a year and a half. They have lived and eaten for free in the monastery. We fear that they will arrive in large numbers; we can’t possibly help them here in Mardin. That is why we turned to the Turkish government and asked for help. Moreover, it’s the tourist season; besides being a historical holy site and a convent school, it is also a tourist attraction.”

The Jesuit rolls his eyes. “It’s a good thing if the tourists can see that the monastery is helping refugees, isn’t it?” No one speaks for a while; the only thing you can hear is the rattle of the rain against the window pane. The Jesuit and the representatives of the various churches get up and take their leave.

When they are gone, Özmen asks for more tea for us. He confesses that things have not gone as planned. “We asked the government for barracks, not tents,” he tells me. “The whole thing has turned out so wrong. Anyway, the refugees that are here, and are coming to Mardin, will live in apartments. A Syriac Orthodox organization from Sweden, Youth Initiative, is helping with rents for four apartments. So the people living in the monastery can be moved.”

Eliye Kirilmaz, chairman of the local church board, says the monastery cannot continue to bear the strain of the displaced Syrians. “We have 30 employees, teachers, caretakers, gardeners and kitchen staff, among others. Moreover, we owe a large sum to the local electricity company; we have not been able to pay for electricity over the winter. Of course we are not throwing out any refugees, but we simply can’t afford it anymore. We are grateful to Youth Initiative who understood the need to rent apartments for the refugees.”

The next day, at lunch in the monastery refectory, I sit down next to five young Syrian men. They are all in their twenties. Some have deserted the Syrian army; others have fled not to be conscripted into the war. “We have tried to find jobs, but no one wants to employ us,” says one of the men, who gives the name Sano. “We only have temporary permits, you see. This means that we can’t work, as we don’t have work permits. It’s very hard to have nothing to do all day long. The transfer into apartments brings us closer to the centre of Mardin and we won’t be isolated as we are now in the monastery.” Another young man says he wants to go back; most people are trying to get to Europe with the help of smugglers, but he and a few others have decided to stay in Turkey until the situation in Syria has improved.

When we go out, the courtyard is full of enthusiastic tourists brandishing cameras, unaware of the Syrian refugees living upstairs. The young men walk discreetly past the tourists and slip up the steps. I follow them. The sun peeps out from behind the clouds. We sit outside; you can almost feel the tide of history. We are in northern Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization according to archaeologists. “First my grandparents fled from Turkey to get away from the genocide of Christians during WWI. Now we, their grandchildren, are fleeing back here to get away from new persecutions”, Sano says with a lump in his throat. “We were doing fine under Bashar’s regime, before the so-called revolution. Certainly, everything wasn’t okay, but at least we weren’t oppressed because of our religion. It was much better before. Now, al Qaeda and Salafists have taken over certain parts of Syria and are about to occupy more territory. It is really scary.”

When Sano first came to Turkey he stayed with a Muslim Kurdish family in the city of Nusaybin, right at the Syrian border. His paternal grandmother and the Kurdish man’s maternal grandmother were sisters; the Kurdish man’s grandmother had been kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam during the genocide in 1914, but the families have been in touch with each other for several years now. “After six months it felt as if I was in the way,” he says. “There were young unmarried daughters in the house, and rumours can start very quickly. Leaving them was better for me. That’s how I came to the monastery.”

The refugees say they each have received 150 Turkish Liras, about 80 US dollars, from the Turkish government. It’s the first time any of them has received government support. Most of all they’d like to have work permits and to be integrated in Mardin, which is one place in the country where Turkish is not the predominant language. “Luckily, we have come to a place in Turkey where almost everyone speaks Arabic,” Sano says.

My photographer and I leave the Deyr-ul Zahfaran monastery, and drive the farm roads through sheep herds to Midyat, where the refugee camp is to be built. We are met by a committee formed by the Board of the Churches, with the task to help refugees. Around 40 of them are staying at the monastery; others are living in apartments in the centre of Midyat, at the premises of an association, in a Catholic church, and in villages around the city. The board is eager to get the camp built.

“They have to move to the camp as soon as it is ready, whether they like to or not. They can’t stay at this monastery anymore, it simply doesn’t work,” says the board vice president, Yusuf Türker. He can’t understand why Christian refugees would have a problem moving out of monasteries and into tents. Besides, he says, the camp is an economic opportunity for local Turks. “Many Christians in Midyat will be able to find work; we are going to need interpreters and people with other professional skills in the camp,” he says.

The members of the refugee committee are pleased that many other Christian associations have assured them that they, too, are going to pitch in with what is needed. Türker says proudly that the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has promised that it’s going to be a state-of-the-art refugee camp with sports grounds, food stores, health care and many other facilities lacking in other camps.

“Of course we are going to see to that they get all possible help from the Church,” says Ergün, the priest. “I mean, the religious leaders will be there for the Syrian refugees in the camp at all times.”

“We hope and pray that there will be peace in Syria and the situation for Christians will improve,” Türker says. “The camp will be there if the situation gets worse, in other words, just in case.”

A little later that evening we meet a Turkish journalist, who asks to be anonymous. She and her husband are well-known human-rights activists. They have just returned from Syria where they have investigated the situation for Christians. She isn’t as pleased as the church leaders about the camp.

“They are going to build not one but two camps, one for 6,000 Muslims and one for 4,000 Christians,” she says. “What will happen if Christians can’t flee from Syria, if they don’t need to flee from Syria? Then both camps will be used for Muslims. Then 10,000 Syrian Muslims will be located in close vicinity to one of the world’s oldest monasteries.”

She lights a cigarette. “I mean, I am a Muslim myself, this is not what I’m talking about. This is a gorgeous part of Turkey, a tourist attraction, a culturally and historically important site without counterpart. Assyrians/Syriacs have lived here for thousands of years. It’s inconceivable that they want to ruin Tur Abdin (a historically important part of Turkey’s southeast region) with these two enormous camps. There are many other locations for refugee camps that are not a few hundred metres from the centre of Midyat. Nothing good will come of this. Should there be problems or crimes, the Christians will point out the Muslims and vice versa. The citizens of Midyat should have had their say. Instead, everything happened practically overnight. The Foreign Minister and a few Bishops was all it took, as I see it, to ruin Midyat. Just look at the media reports in the past few days about fighting between locals and Syrian refugees in Jordan. And yet both groups belong to the same religion!”

The next morning, we accompany Yusuf Türker to the refugee camp under construction. He isn’t buying the journalist’s complaint. “Our agreement with the government is that no others than Christians will be allowed to stay in the camp located in close vicinity to the monastery. We will not accept any other use of the camp.”

Besides, he says, “Should anyone commit a crime or create problems of some kind, that person will immediately be sent back to Syria. Moreover, the Jandarma, Turkish Military Police, will guard the camp.”

The construction is in full swing. The ground is being levelled and water and electricity connected. Türker points out that Midyat companies have been engaged for the work. ”I’m convinced that letting land for the camp was the right thing to do; it’s indeed needed for the Christian refugees that are already in Turkey. And it could be needed for many more.”

Türker leaves us and we decide it is time for lunch.

At the restaurant we are informed that one of the dishwashers is a Christian refugee from Syria. His father was killed by Islamists. We ask to see him. His name is Gabriel Staifo Malke, 18 years old and originally from Hassake, in northern Syria. He is handsome and proud. Yet for the next several minutes he speaks like a robot, his eyes holding back tears.

Gabriel Staifo Malke’s father, pictured, was killed in Syria in July 2012.
Photo: Saima Altunkaya for World Watch Monitor

“My father was found shot, killed in his car,” the young man says. “The only reason for his killing was that he had a crucifix hanging from his rear mirror. It was on 17 July, 2012, a day I will never forget. My two brothers and I were sleeping. Dad and our uncle were going to Qamishly; it was about nine o’clock in the morning, I believe. My eldest brother’s cell phone woke us up. I heard him confirm that it was him speaking. He, my other brother and my mother went to the hospital, because Dad had had an accident. I went to my uncle’s house close by. There were many adults, my relatives, there. They were all crying and screaming. Suddenly I was in a car. We went to the state hospital. The cell phone of one my aunts rang, the other aunt wanted to know what it was about. Everyone was crying out their anger, fear and sorrow. My dad wasn’t hurt any more, he was dead. My mind went completely blank. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t take it in. When we got to the hospital I wasn’t allowed to see Dad; only my mother and one of my older brothers were allowed in. All other members of the family stood outside beating their chests and crying. I was still numb. Like paralysed. Dad was loved by all; he was a popular veterinary. No one would want to kill him.

“Three hours later he was brought home. They carried him in on a gurney; there was blood everywhere. He was still bleeding. With him came a bag with his belongings; what he had in the car and his pockets. All the money was there; but covered with blood. It hadn’t been thieves, common criminals that had killed him. My mother sat on the stairs, she refused to come in, her brother and sisters practically had to drag her into the house. There were three visible bullet holes, one in his neck, one in his right side and one in his shoulder. Mum cried and cried. She kept repeating that she had asked him to remove the cross, but he had refused. He had replied in a proud voice that he, as a Christian, had as much right to Syria as anyone else. Besides, the country is named after us Assyrians/Syriacs. Syria is our country, too.

“In Hassake, terrorists had warned Christians that they would be killed if they didn’t leave town; there was no room left for us. Most of the others hid their religion, didn’t show openly that they were non-Muslims. But not Dad. After the funeral the threats against our family and other Christians increased. The terrorists called us and said that it was time to disappear; we had that choice, or we would be killed. My brothers fled with the help of smugglers. Their destination was Germany, but on the Bulgarian border they were apprehended by Turkish border police. For five days we heard nothing from them; we had no idea what had happened to them. It wasn’t possible to speak with Mum; she thought they were gone, too. Something awful must have happened to them. When my eldest brother finally called and said that they were okay, they were in prison but were going to be released soon, Mum lost it altogether and fell down. A few days later it was our turn, Mum’s and mine. The smuggler brought us into Turkey by way of an opening cut in the barbed wire. The Free Syrian Army guided us out, as if they wanted us to leave the country.”

Two other Syrian refugees have heard that we are interested in their stories and have come to find us.

“It’s important that you tell the truth, that you get the whole picture,” the first one says. “If you’re interested in covering the camp, we want you to know that none of us will be staying in the camp. They didn’t even ask us before they started building. Personally, I think that women and children should be brought out from Syria, to the camp, and that the men should be given heavier weapons so that they can defend their areas from al-Qaeda and Salafists.”

The other one follows up: “We don’t want food; we don’t want to hide in refugee camps in Turkey! We want shelter for our families and weapons for ourselves. Syria must not be purged of non-Muslims. We want to fight for the future of the Christians in Syria.”

The refugees and their stories have made us forget the time. We have to hurry to get to a meeting with Metropolitan Samuel Aktas at the monastery in Mor Gabriel, about 10 minutes away.

He isn’t happy and doesn’t beat around the bush. “This camp is definitely not what we asked for. This is only negative; there is nothing positive in it. We are digging our own grave; this way they would be able to purge Syria of its Christian population. If cities like Qamishly, Kbor l´bit and Derek, that used to be almost entirely Christian, are purged, we will be finished all over this part of the world, because it was here that the majority of Christians were.”

In the monastery courtyard, a Syrian refugee stops me. He wants us to write that in many parts of Syria you have to pay a fee not to be kidnapped or killed. “For months my uncle and my brother-in-law have been paying money to terrorists; or else they would have been killed,” he says. “Please, you have to write about it!”

In the evening we pay a visit to Gabriel Staifo Malke’s mother and brothers. They’re renting a worn down apartment in the centre of Midyat; her brother-in-law is visiting from Germany in order to help them. Each time she starts talking, she starts crying. Finally she plucks up courage. Basically, she repeats the story told by her youngest son. After a while, she asks her middle son to fetch a Bible. She opens it and takes out a banknote, a Syrian one. You can hardly see what it is because of the stains. She says that it’s her husband’s blood and she is going to keep it forever.

At around 10 p.m., we are sitting in the hotel lobby with a man named Bashar. He fled Syria after having been robbed, beaten up and had his life threatened because he refused to convert to Islam. Two women in niqab, a black cloth that Shiite women use to cover their face, had entered the shop, closed the door, took off the cloth so that no one could see that they were men, and beat up Bashar.

The cell phone rings. It’s a friend from Mardin, with news that two Syrian bishops have been kidnapped, and their driver killed. We turn on the TV, zapping between channels to get updates.

“It’s starting now, just like in Iraq,” Bashar says. “They kidnap and kill priests to scare people so that they will run away. People will think, if a Bishop can’t protect himself then how can ordinary Christians?” He shakes his head, lights a cigarette and leaves to call friends in Syria.

That night, sleep didn’t come easily.

In the morning we are received by the city’s local governor, Öguzhan Bingöl. “In the beginning we were supposed to help Assyrians/Syriacs in Tur Abdin so that they in turn could help Assyrian/Syriac refugees,” he says. “But we have had signals that the number of refugees could increase dramatically, that there could be thousands of them in the near future. There are many internal refugees in Syria who need somewhere to go. Getting them out won’t be a problem; the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs will see to that they are moved in a safe and secure way.”

Hearing about the criticism, he smiles. “We are going to build a refugee camp that will be an exemplary example for the rest of the world. The refugees won’t even feel that they are in a camp. I am personally going to stay with them in the camp; I will be sharing their food and drink. I’m also going to sleep there to make sure that they will be treated properly and feel alright.”

We tell him that many of the refugees already in Tur Abdin refuse to move to the camp, that we have spoken to internal Christian refugees in Syria, and that they prefer to live in monasteries or apartments. They fear that if they are all in one place they would be an easy target for terrorists.

Bingöl is unmoved. “I am convinced that Syrian Christians are going to come when the camp is ready.” He says worries about tourism and fears about crime are unfounded. “I don’t think it will have a negative effect on tourism, and even if it did, it doesn’t matter. To help people in need is more important than tourism. I definitely don’t think that crime rates will increase; there will be rigorous security in the camp. And if the Assyrian/Syriacs will not move in to it then we can use it for other purposes, like earthquakes.”

We remind him that Assyrian/Syriac leaders in Turabdin say they have been promised the camp will be for Christians only, that no others will be able to stay in the camp closest to the monastery.

Fifteen minutes later, just before we leave, Bingöl changes his mind and says he has thought about one thing: The camp won’t be used for any other purpose than sheltering Syrian Christians until the war is over. That’s the way it's going to be, he says.

Kuryakus Ergün, the director of Mor Gabriel monastery, is waiting for us in a car. He is very disappointed with the developments. “The entire thing has gone completely out of hand. I participated in the meeting with the Turkish Foreign Minister. He said that Turkey is willing to help our people in Syria, but that one country can’t interfere in the internal affairs of another country. So our Bishops suggested a camp. The idea first came from Ablahad Staifo from the European branch of the Assyrian Democratic Organisation. That is why we were invited. We can’t blame anyone but ourselves, not the Turkish government, or anyone else. It’s our own fault that it came to this, the Bishops’ fault. This could lead to a devastating demographic change.”

Ergün drives us to the mayor, Sehmus Nasiroglu, who is waiting in a restaurant. We don’t even have time to sit down before Nasiroglu starts.

“They never even consulted us, the people of Midyat. From one day to another the government had decided that two camps were to be built in Midyat. No one asked us for our opinion about where to construct them, for instance. Having them so close to the centre will lead to increased crime rates, I guarantee you. Judging from other camps crime rates will go up by at least 30 per cent. It’s a huge number for such a small city as ours.”

Midyat has a population of 55,000. The mayor insists there are other ways to help Syrian refugees besides building two enormous camps. “Someone should follow the money; millions of dollars will be invested in the project,” he says. “A few people in Midyat will make a lot of money on this, while the rest of Midyat will suffer.”

I tell him the local governor claims there will be rigorous security in the camp and the Jandarma will keep crime at bay. The mayor scoffs.

“Let me be clear: the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) closed down a school the other day, teachers and students had to leave. If the local governor is so strong that he can guarantee the security, I am wondering why he hasn’t succeeded in opening the school again. He can’t guarantee anything! I maintain that the negative aspects of these two camps outweigh the positive ones. A few people in Midyat will make a lot of money on this, I’m sure. The money must be followed; there is a lot of corruption here.”

Leaving Nasiroglu and approaching an area with a strong signal again, both Kuryakus Ergün and I receive the same email: The Dutch branch of the Assyrian Democratic Organisation has issued a press release calling for a humanitarian zone for Assyrians and others in northeastern Syria. It’s an idea that, if adopted, could keep Syrian Christians home and leave the Midyat camp, built to house thousands, mostly empty.

I’ve come to the camp, and have taken its measure. Along the way I’ve encountered Christian leaders in the region who are split about the whole idea. I’ve met some Syrian Christians who think the camp is needed, and some who dread it will become a Christian ghetto and a sitting duck for terrorists.

And in the end, I have as many questions about the future of Christianity in northeastern Syria as I had when I began.

Nuri Kino, of Assyrian (Syriac Orthodox) background, is an award-winning TV/radio journalist now living in Sweden. In Jan, 2013 he wrote a report "Between the wire" in which he did 100+ interviews with Syria’s minority Christian community.
©2013 World Watch Monitor