Isis-supporting couple planned Christmas terror attack after meeting on online dating site

Police say 'significant loss of life' was averted with arrests in December 2016

Lizzie Dearden Home Affairs Correspondent 

Monday 8 January 2018

An Isis-supporting couple have been found guilty of preparing to launch a terror attack using a homemade bomb and chemical weapons in the UK.

Security services feared Munir Mohammed and Rowaida el-Hassan were ready to strike before they were detained in December 2016, with police saying a “significant loss of life” had been averted.

Mohammed, 36, had already amassed two out of three core components for triacetone triperoxide (TATP), the unstable explosive used in recent Isis attacks, including in Paris and Brussels.

He had also downloaded manuals on how to make mobile phone detonators and ricin, a deadly poison that can kill an adult victim with just a few grains.

Mohammed, of Leopold Street in Derby, and El-Hassan, of Willesden Lane in north-west London, denied preparing terrorist acts between November 2015 and December 2016 but a jury found them both guilty.

Judge Michael Topolski QC remanded them in custody and warned them they faced jail when they are sentenced next month.

He said Mohammed had been convicted of “planning a potentially devastating terrorist attack by creating an explosive device and deploying it somewhere in the UK targeting those you regarded as enemies of Isis”.

“Rowaida El-Hassan, you share the extremist mindset with Munir Mohammed and you were ideologically motivated to provide him with support, motivation and assistance,” the judge added.

“You knew he was engaging and planning an attack. You knew he was planning an explosion to kill and maim innocent people in the cause of Isis.”

The Old Bailey heard that El-Hassan, a pharmacist, became a willing participant in the plot after meeting Mohammed on dating website

She had advertised “for a simple, very simple, honest and straightforward man who fears Allah” who she could “vibe with on a spiritual and intellectual level”.

Prosecutors said Mohammed was specifically drawn to her profile in late 2015 after seeing she had a masters’ degree in pharmacy, aiming to use her chemical knowledge in the attack.

Jurors were told the pair had a “rapidly formed emotional attachment and a shared ideology” and were in regular contact on WhatsApp by spring 2016, meeting in a London park near El-Hassan’s home.

Records of their messages show they shared extremist views and videos, while Mohammed was put in touch with a man he believed was an Isis commander via Facebook.

Prosecutor Anne Whyte QC said Mohammed “resolved upon a lone wolf attack”, while working making sauces for supermarket ready meals, and El-Hassan was well aware of his plan.

He pledged allegiance to the man, known as Abubakr Kurdi, and offered to participate in “a new job in the UK” – a phrase jurors were told referred to a terror attack.

In September 2016, Mohammed complained he had not received his instructions, telling his contact: “If possible send how we make dough [explosives] for Syrian bread [a bomb] and other types of food.”

El-Hassan, a 33-year-old divorcee with two children, advised Mohammed on what chemicals to buy for a bomb, the court heard.

That November, Mohammed got hold of a video containing information on how to manufacture ricin, and days before his arrest he was captured on CCTV buying “acetone free” nail polish from Asda, in the mistaken belief it was a component of TATP.

He also looked at pressure cookers at Ace Discounts, which the prosecution said could be used to contain the explosives, according to several terrorist manuals.

Police found hydrogen peroxide in a wardrobe and hydrochloric acid in the freezer of his home during a raid on 12 December 2016 but Mohammed claimed they were for domestic purposes.

He told the Old Bailey he sent El-Hassan extremist videos “mainly for the news” and claimed his intention was “to marry her”.

But Mohammed had an arranged marriage in Sudan with a woman he had never met called Fatima, who he was hoping to bring to England on a student visa.

He had arrived in Britain in the back of a lorry and claimed asylum in February 2014, the court heard.

After awaiting a decision for more than two years, he appealed to his local MP Margaret Beckett for help, but she was told his case had been referred to a “specialist unit for consideration”.

El-Hassan, who came to Britain from Sudan at the age of three, told jurors she had sulphuric acid for her drains and got face masks to wear as she dealt with a damp problem in her flat.

Asked if she had feelings for Mohammed, she said: ”It was mixed feelings at the time. Yes, there was emotional attachment.

“There were feelings developing and we were getting to know each other. I was grateful for things he helped me with. And he was grateful for things I helped him with. I liked the attention he was giving me.”

Police said it could not be proven that El-Hassan was an extremist before she met Mohammed, but could have been in no doubt about his jihadi beliefs.

Detective Chief Inspector Paul Greenwood, who led the investigation, said the website they used was a “normal place to look for a relationship”.

But Mohammed used it to get advice on where to source chemicals to manufacture TATP from El-Hassan, who was previously unknown to the security services.

“Munir shared with her some really graphic and brutal execution videos, lots of other ideological material, including children executing Isis prisoners and children involved in military training in the name of the Islamic State,” DCI Greenwood said.

“She appeared to be very receptive to that and they seemed to encourage each other with their shared mindsets... irrespective of whether she was influenced by him, she knew fully his mindset and contributed to a set of circumstances that, had we not intervened, could have resulted in significant loss of life in the UK in the lead-up to Christmas 2016.”

Sue Hemming, the head of of the Crown Prosecution Service’s counter-terror division, said the couple were “clearly attracted to each other through their support for Daesh’s violent ideology and its intolerance of those who do not subscribe to its views”.

“They planned to kill and injure innocent people in the UK and had the mindset, the methodology and almost all the material needed, for Mohammed to carry out an attack,“ she added.

“Both will be in prison, where they cannot plot together and will no longer be a danger to the public.”

As happens at Christmas every year throughout the Muslim world, Christians and their churches were especially targeted—from jihadi terror strikes killing worshippers, to measures by Muslim authorities restricting Christmas celebrations.  Some 2013 incidents follow:

Iraq:  “Militants” reported the Associated Press, “targeted Christians in three separate Christmas Day bombings in Baghdad, killing at least 37 people, officials said Wednesday.  In one attack, a car bomb went off near a church in the capital’s southern Dora neighborhood, killing at least 26 people and wounding 38, a police officer said. Earlier, two bombs ripped through a nearby outdoor market simultaneously in the Christian section of Athorien, killing 11 people and wounding 21.”

Iran:  Five Muslim converts to Christianity were arrested from a house-church during a Christmas celebration. Plain clothes Iranian security authorities raided a house where, according to Mohabat News, “a group of Christians had gathered to celebrate Christmas on Tuesday, December 24.” Before arresting the five apostates, authorities “insulted and searched those in attendance, and seized all Christian books, CDs, and laptops they found. They also took the Satellite TV receiver.”  The original report received by Mohabat stated: “These Christians had gathered to worship and celebrate [the] birth of Jesus.”

Indonesia: Muslims in the Aceh province protested against Christmas and New Year celebrationsand called on authorities to ban them. Days earlier, an influential Islamic cleric organization, the Ulema Consultative Assembly, issued a fatwa, or edict, “prohibiting Muslims from offering Christmas wishes or celebrating on New Year’s Eve,” said the Associated Press.  Aceh is the “only province in predominantly Muslim Indonesia that is allowed to implement a version of Islamic Shariah law.”

Kenya: “Youths,” reported Reuters, “threw petrol bombs at two Kenyan churches on Christmas day … in the latest bout of violence against Christians on the country’s predominantly Muslim coast.”  The attacks occurred “in the early hours of December 25 after churchgoers held services to usher in Christmas.”  The churches were located in Muslim-majority regions. One church was “completely destroyed.”

Somalia: The more “moderate” government—as it is often portrayed in comparison to Al Shabaab (“The Youth”) opposition—banned Christmas celebrations. Hours before Christmas Day, the Ministry of Justice and Religious Affairs released a directive banning any Christian festivities from being held in the east African nation.  In the words of one ministry official: “We alert fellow Muslims in Somalia that some festivities to mark Christian Days will take place around the world in this week. It is prohibited to celebrate those days in this country.”  All security and law enforcement agencies were instructed to quash any Christian celebrations.

Pakistan:  During Christmas Eve services, “Heavy contingents of police were deployed around the churches to thwart any untoward incident.”  In some regions, “prayer service at major churches focused on remembering the Pakistani Christians who lost their lives in terror attacks.” For example, three months earlier, Islamic suicide bombers entered the All Saints Church compound in Peshawar following Sunday mass and blew themselves up in the midst of some 550 congregants, killing some 130 worshippers, including many Sunday school children, women, and choir members, and injuring nearly 200 people.

Death toll rises from Nigeria church bombings

By the CNN Wire Staff
December 26, 2011

Jos, Nigeria (CNN) -- The death toll from the worst of several church bombings Christmas Day in Nigeria has reached 32, an emergency official told CNN Monday.

Another of the bombings killed at least three people, officials said.
Blasts were reported at churches in five cities Sunday. A day later, details from some areas were still not fully clear.

The extremist Boko Haram sect claimed responsibility, two government officials said.

The group has targeted Christians in the past, as well as those Muslims who the group's members consider insufficiently Islamic.

The blasts mark the second holiday season that bombs have hit Christian houses of worship in the west African nation.

Olusegun Okebiorun, controller-general of Nigeria's fire service, told CNN Boko Haram claimed responsibility in a message sent to media in Nigeria.

He vowed the government is doing all it can to ensure that such attacks don't occur again.

Government spokesman Reuben Abiti also confirmed that Boko Haram had claimed responsibility.

In a statement issued late Sunday, President Goodluck Jonathan called the bombings "a dastardly act that must attract the rebuke of all peace-loving Nigerians."

Okebiorun said 32 people were killed in Madalla, and 65 were wounded. Some of the wounded have been treated and released, he said.

The other cities struck Sunday included Jos, Kano, and Damaturu and Gadaka, said journalist Hassan John, who witnessed the carnage in Jos.

Officials said three people were killed in the Damaturu blast, John said.

Also in Damaturu, a northern town in Yobe state, a police station and a state security building were bombed, an aid worker said. The worker asked not to be named for security reasons.

Nwakpa Okorie, a spokesman for the Nigerian Red Cross, said the some of the wounded were taken to the capital Abuja for treatment.
"The security agents have secured the streets close to the bombed areas ... in Madalla, Jos and Dematuru," he said Sunday.

Jonathan said his government "will not relent in its determination to bring to justice all the perpetrators of today's acts of violence and all others before now." And in Washington, the White House said U.S. officials would help Nigeria pursue those behind "what initially appear to be terrorist acts."

"We condemn this senseless violence and tragic loss of life on Christmas Day," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a written statement. "We offer our sincere condolences to the Nigerian people and especially those who lost family and loved ones."

The first explosion Sunday struck near a Roman Catholic church in Madalla, west of Abuja, Nigeria's capital, the National Emergency Management Agency said. Church officials were trying to get a picture of what happened in the city.

The Rev. Michael Ekpenyong, secretary general of the country's Catholic Secretariat, said the church that was bombed was "not a big church, but lots of people attend."

Photos from the scene showed burned-out cars and at least three bodies on the ground, one covered with a blanket, at the rural church.
Usman Abdallah Baba, who witnessed the bombing, said local people immediately blamed Boko Haram.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the acts "in the strongest terms," his office said in a statement. He expressed his condolences to the Nigerian people and reiterated a call "for an end to all acts of sectarian violence in the country."

In 2010, five churches in Jos were attacked while residents were celebrating Christmas Eve. The blasts killed dozens in Jos, which lies on a faith-based fault line between the Muslim-dominated north and the mainly Christian south.

On Sunday, two blasts targeted the Mountain of Fire Ministries church in Jos, northeast of the capital, said John. No one was killed in that bombing, which John called a "miracle" - but a police officer who got into a gun battle with the attackers died of his wounds later, John said, citing officials.

The second church, in Jos, was hit by two explosions when young men threw bombs, John said. Police responded quickly and exchanged gunfire with the attackers, who wounded at least one of the police officers, he said.

The injured officer was rushed to the Jos University teaching hospital for medical attention, but died of his wounds, John said. The attackers fled into the crowd and disappeared after the attack, John said.

Police arrested four people and recovered four unexploded devices, Nigerian state television reported.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation and has the world's sixth-largest Christian population -- about 80.5 million people as of 2010, according to a report published this month by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington. That makes the country just over 50% Christian, according to the Pew figures.

The attacks followed two days of clashes between militants and security forces in northern Nigeria. Lt. Gen. Azubuike Ihejirika, the Nigerian army chief of staff, said the clashes left three soldiers dead and several more wounded.

The fighting began Thursday between Boko Haram militants and the military in the Yobe state town of Damaturu, Ihejirika said.

"There was a major encounter with the Boko Haram in Damaturu," Ihejirika said Friday. "We lost three of our soldiers, seven were wounded. But we killed over 50 of their members."

Boko Haram translates from the local Hausa as "Western education is outlawed." The group has morphed into an insurgency responsible for dozens of attacks in Nigeria in the last two years.

Boko Haram's targets include police outposts and churches as well as places associated with "Western influence."

Radical Muslims continue violence in Nigeria

December 30, 2010

The Islamist group Boko Haram, which is thought to be responsible for Christmas Eve attacks on two Nigerian Protestant churches, is also responsible for the killing of three people at a hospital in the northeastern city of Maiduguri on December 28, according to police.

Founded in Maiduguri in 2002, Boko Haram (the words mean “Western or non-Islamic education is a sin”) seeks the imposition of sharia in Nigeria. Boko Haram’s late founder, Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf, told the BBC in 2009 that

there are prominent Islamic preachers who have seen and understood that the present Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam. Like rain. We believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain. Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it.

15% of the nation’s 146.5 million people are Catholic, according to Vatican statistics. An estimated 50% are Muslim, 25% are Protestant, and 10% retain indigenous beliefs. Maiduguri is heavily Muslim: the territory covered by the Diocese of Maiduguri is only 2% Catholic.


Radical Islam vs. Christianity

The cross is near extinction in the ancient lands of its origin

By Jeffrey T. Kuhner

The Washington Times

December 23, 2010

As Americans celebrate Christmas in peace in our nation, many Christians across the Middle East are in peril: Muslim fanatics seek to exterminate them.

Over the past several years, Christians have endured bombings, murders, assassinations, torture, imprisonment and expulsions. These anti-Christian pogroms culminated recently with the brutal attack on Our Lady of Salvation, an Assyrian Catholic church in Baghdad. Al Qaeda gunmen stormed the church during Mass, slaughtering 51 worshippers and two priests. Father Wassim Sabih begged the jihadists to spare the lives of his parishioners. They executed him and then launched their campaign of mass murder.

Their goal was to inflict terror - thereby causing chaos in the hopes of undermining Iraq's fledgling democracy - and to annihilate the country's Christian minority. After the siege, al Qaeda in Mesopotamia issued a bulletin claiming that "all Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for" jihadists.

Since the 2003 war in Iraq, Christians have faced a relentless assault from Islamic extremists. Many of these groups, such as the Assyrians, consist of the oldest Christian sects in the world, going back to the time of Christ. Some even speak Aramaic, the language used by Jesus. The very roots of our Christian heritage are being extirpated.

Religious cleansing is taking place everywhere in Iraq - by Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Before the toppling of Saddam Hussein, there existed more than 1 million Christians in Iraq. They are now mostly gone - scattered to the winds, sacrificed on the altar of erecting an Islamic state. Churches have been closed or blown up. Hundreds of thousands have been expelled. Nearly two-thirds of the 500,000 Christians in Baghdad have fled or been killed. In Mosul, about 100,000 Christians used to live there. Now, just 5,000 remain. Soon there will be none.

The rise of radical Islam threatens Christian communities not only in Iraq, but across the Middle East. In Egypt, Coptic Christians routinely are murdered, persecuted and prevented from worshipping - especially during religious holy days such as Christmas and Easter. In the birthplace of Christ, Bethlehem, Christians have largely been forced out. In Nazareth, they are a tiny remnant. In Saudi Arabia, Muslim converts to Christianity are executed. Churches and synagogues are prohibited. In Turkey, Islamists have butchered priests and nuns. In Lebanon, Christians have dwindled to a sectarian rump, menaced by surging Shiite and Sunni populations.

The Vatican estimates that from Egypt to Iran there are just 17 million Christians left. Christianity is on the verge of extinction in the ancient lands of its birth. In short, a creeping religious genocide is taking place.

Yet the West remains silent for fear of offending Muslim sensibilities. This must stop - immediately. For years, Pope Benedict XVI has been demanding that Islamic religious leaders adopt a new policy: reciprocity. If Muslims - funded and supported by Saudi Arabia - can build mosques and madrassas in Europe and America, then Christians - Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox - should be entitled to build churches in the Arab world. For all of their promises, however, Muslim leaders have failed to deliver. In fact, the situation has only deteriorated.

Clearly, some Muslims cannot live in peaceful coexistence with non-Muslim peoples - especially in countries where Muslims form the majority. Christian minorities living in the overwhelmingly Muslim-dominated Middle East pose no possible danger to Islamic hegemony. Hence, why the hatred against them?

This is a repeat of an old historical pattern: the periodic ebb and flow of Islamic jihadism. From its inception, Islam has been engaged in a struggle with Christian civilization. Led by the Prophet Muhammad some 600 years after the birth of Christ, the Muslim faith spread across the Middle East through violence and war. Christians were either forcibly converted or slowly expelled from their ancestral lands. Following the conquest of the Arabian Peninsula, Muslim armies invaded North Africa, Spain, France and the Balkans. At one point, they even reached the gates of Vienna - until they were repelled by the brave knights of Catholic Croatia. The sword of Islam sought to conquer Christian Europe.

Bernard Lewis, the foremost historian on the Middle East, rightly argues that the Crusades were not the result of Western imperialism; rather, they signified a belated - and only partially successful - effort to liberate once-Christian territories from Islamic aggression. Europe was saved; Jerusalem and the Middle East were not.

Today's anti-Christian pogroms are not new. They are what Christians have historically faced - persecution, death and martyrdom. In Roman times, Christians were thrown to the lions in the Coliseum. In the Islamic world, they are being murdered, raped, beheaded and thrown out of their homes. The only difference is the means, not the end.

The Christians of the Middle East are dying for their convictions, as did so many others before them. For this, they will receive their just reward in heaven. Their deaths are a salient reminder that, contrary to liberal myth, Islam is not a "religion of peace." Instead, it contains a militant segment bent on waging a holy war against infidels and erecting a global caliphate.

There is, however, a true religion of peace. It began with a baby boy born in a manger in Bethlehem. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came to shine a light into the dark souls of men. As Christians recall and celebrate that humble birth, we also should stand in solidarity with those who are, 2,000 years later, still being persecuted in His name.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute.


Christmas is evil: Muslim group launches poster campaign against festive period

By Daily Mail Reporter
23rd December 2010

Fanatics from a banned Islamic hate group have launched a nationwide poster campaign denouncing Christmas as evil.

Organisers plan to put up thousands of placards around the UK claiming the season of goodwill is responsible for rape, teenage pregnancies, abortion, promiscuity, crime and paedophilia.

They hope the campaign will help 'destroy Christmas' in this country and lead to Britons converting to Islam instead.

Labour MP and anti racist campaigner Jim Fitzpatrick branded the posters 'extremely offensive' and demanded they were immediately ripped down.

The placards, which have already appeared in parts of London, feature an apparently festive scene with an image of the Star of Bethlehem over a Christmas tree.

But under a banner announcing 'the evils of Christmas' it features a message mocking the song the 12 Days of Christmas.

It reads: 'On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me an STD (sexually transmitted disease).

'On the second day debt, on the third rape, the fourth teenage pregnancies and then there was abortion.'

According to the posters, Christmas is also to responsible for paganism, domestic violence, homelessness, vandalism, alcohol and drugs.

Another offence of Christmas, it proclaims, is 'claiming God has a son'.

The bottom of the poster declares: 'In Islam we are protected from all of these evils. We have marriage, family, honour, dignity, security, rights for man, woman and child.'

The campaign's organiser is 27-year-old Abu Rumaysah, who once called for Sharia Law in Britain at a press conference held by hate preacher leader Anjem Choudary, the leader of militant group Islam4UK.

Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson banned Islam4UK group earlier this year, making it a criminal offence to be a member, after it threatened to protest at Wootton Bassett, the town where Britain honours its war dead.

Mr Rumaysah told the Mail that he was unconcerned about offending Christians.

He said: 'Christmas is a lie and as Muslims it is our duty to attack it.

'But our main attack is on the fruits of Christmas, things like alcohol abuse and promiscuity that increase during Christmas and all the other evils these lead to such as abortion, domestic violence and crime.

'We hope that out campaign will make people realise that Islam is the only way to avoid this and convert.'

Mr Rumaysah, who said his campaign was not linked to any group, boasted that the posters would be put up in cities around the country, including London, Birmingham and Cardiff.

The campaign was highlighted by volunteers from a charity which distributes food and presents to pensioners and the lonely at Christmas.

Sister Christine Frost, founder of the East London Neighbours in Poplar charity, said: 'The more posters I saw, the more angry I got.

'Someone is stirring hatred which leaves the road open to revenge attacks or petrol bombs through letter-boxes.

'I told the Mayor we are all scared.

'If we said such things about Muslims, we'd all be hanging from lamp-posts.

'The posters appear to be professionally printed'.

Poplar and Limehouse MP Mr Fitzpatrick said: 'These posters are extremely offensive and have upset a lot of people - that's why we jumped on it and asked the council to remove them.

'Sister Christine is rooted in the community and doesn't take offence lightly.

'But these hate posters really upset her. Christmas is close to her belief.'

A Met Police spokesman said they had received complaints and were investigating.

He said: 'We are investigating allegations of religious hate crime in Tower Hamlets following complaints about posters displayed in and around the Mile End area.'

Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman said the posters had 'upset and antagonised many residents'.

He added: 'The messages on these posters are offensive and do not reflect the views of the Council or the vast majority of residents.'


Muslim cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi is linked to Christmas Day bomb attempt

By Greg Miller and Spencer S. Hsu

Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 1, 2010

A radical Muslim cleric who was born in the United States and resides in Yemen "had a direct operational role" in the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said Wednesday.

The remark by Michael E. Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, is the most specific assertion so far regarding Anwar al-Aulaqi's involvement in the failed plot, which allegedly employed a would-be suicide bomber who is accused of boarding the flight with explosives in his underwear.

Defending the Obama administration's decision to authorize the CIA and the military to kill Aulaqi, Leiter told the Aspen Institute's homeland security forum that the attack could have killed more than 300 people and that "it would be irresponsible not to think about directing all elements of national power to protect the American people."

U.S. officials had previously said that Aulaqi was linked to the attempt, but they had not specified his role.

A second U.S. official said that American intelligence services say Aulaqi provided the key link between the would-be bomber and those who trained him.

"We think Aulaqi helped put [Umar Farouk] Abdulmutallab in touch with the plotters and trainers of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," the official said, referring to a regional affiliate of the main al-Qaeda organization. "He's more than a propagandist. He's an operational figure, a terrorist who lent his hands to attacks on the United States."

Abdulmutallab, the son of a Nigerian banker, was detained in Detroit after being subdued by other passengers as he allegedly tried to detonate the bomb. He has pleaded not guilty to charges that include attempting to kill the passengers on the plane.

Aulaqi has emerged as an eloquent and unapologetic advocate of violence against the West. His online sermons attract wide international audiences and are a source of particular concern to U.S. authorities because they are delivered in English.

Aulaqi also exchanged e-mails with the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in November. Before leaving the United States, Aulaqi preached at mosques in California and Virginia, apparently coming into contact with at least two of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers.

U.S. intelligence officials believe that Aulaqi is increasingly involved in the operations of al-Qaeda's offshoot in Yemen, acting as a recruiter and facilitator who has a deep familiarity with U.S. cities and society. He is not, however, thought to have the skills to lead operations or build a bomb.

The al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen placed a banner on jihadist Web sites this week advertising what it called a new English-language magazine. The online publication is to be called "Inspire" and includes an interview with Aulaqi.

Philippine Conflict Subdues Christmas Joy

By Luke Hunt
23 December 2008

The Christmas spirit in the southern Philippines is being sorely tested by an escalation in the fighting between government troops and Muslim rebels. Many civilians are too frightened to shop or attend church services.
Dozens of people have been killed or injured in the latest spate of attacks by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front across the southern island of Mindanao.

Last week, bombings of two shopping malls in Iligan City left three dead and 50 wounded. On Sunday, bomb disposal experts dismantled a third explosive.

Kidnappings and skirmishes in the countryside are also on the rise, forcing thousands of people out of their villages and into refugee camps.

Collapse of peace deal blamed for increase in violence

The rebels are fighting for a homeland on the southern island for the country's Muslims. Earlier this year, the Philippine government and the MILF reached a peace agreement but the Supreme Court in August struck down the deal.

The collapse of the deal has been blamed for the increased violence over the past few months.

Al Jacinto's family publishes the Mindanao Examiner in Zamboanga.

He says the latest fighting is felt across Mindanao and weighs heavily on the island's Christian population in the lead-up to Christmas.

"A lot of people are really afraid, scared to go out and shop because of this threat of terrorism," he said. "In Zamboanga, in Basilan there's fighting, in Jolo Island there s fighting, in central Mindanao there's sporadic fighting between the MILF and the Philippine military."

President approves revival of peace talks

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has given the go-ahead for a peace panel to revive talks with the rebels in another attempt to end the decades-old conflict.

However, Jacinto says the MILF will be in no mood to bargain until the government agrees to its terms for an autonomous homeland.

"When I spoke with MILF leader, Mohagher Iqbal, who's also chairman of this panel with the rebels, he said he would only resume peace talks with the Arroyo government if the president honors the … Muslim ancestral domain agreement that was not signed in August," Jacinto said.

Muslims are a minority in the Philippines, where most people are Christians. Most Muslims live in the south, an area the MILF claims as an ancestral homeland.

In response to the recent violence, the British, Australian and U.S. governments warn of a high threat of terrorism across the Philippines. They have advised their citizens against traveling to Mindanao.

Christmas Attacks Suspected
Indonesia's Christians dig bomb pits to prep for terrorist assaults over weekend.
by Tony Carnes in Jakarta, Indonesia

Christians in Indonesia are taking few chances this Christmas. As the choirs prep and evangelical rappers rehearse their hip-hop gospel numbers, church leaders are digging bomb pits and coordinating security with local police and the military.

In Jakarta, larger churches have highly visible perimeter security systems, including metal detectors and roadblocks that police and private security will be manning throughout Christmas weekend. Indonesia's government urged churches in rural areas to dig holes in which to place any suspicious objects that might be improvised explosives.

Many Indonesians anticipated more year-end violence because of worsening economic conditions, political unrest, and the strength of militant Islam. This year has seen renewed violence targeting Christians. In late October, on the island of Sulawesi in western Indonesia, Muslim militants beheaded three Christian girls on their way to a Christian school. In early December, also in Sulawesi, a suspected Muslim militant burned down one church.

Representatives of the government met with Muslim fundamentalists to ask them to focus their Christmas weekend demonstrations on things like the economy and to leave out sectarian attacks on Christians who tend to be economically more successful. Local papers just announced that there were millions more unemployed, and the poverty rate has zoomed upward in recent months.

This fall, police announced that they had launched a nationwide security operation "Candle Operation 2005" with 47,750 officers to ensure peaceful Christmas and New Year celebrations. Some moderate Muslim youth will volunteer guard duty at churches over Christmas, according to media reports.

Open Doors reports that more than 600 churches have been destroyed and 20,000 killed in Muslim-Christian violence since the early 1990s in Indonesia.

Be Watchful, Don't Panic

Last Sunday, December 18, Christianity Today interviewed worshippers at the 5,000-member Indonesian Christian Church (GKI) of the Gunung Sahari area of Jakarta. Cars were lined up for a brief anti-bomb inspection in the alleyway leading up to the church entrance. High walls surrounded the church itself.

The early morning service started with a bell ringing and then an announcement about security preparations and Christmas services. The church bulletin listed eight "Suggestions for Security During Christmas." The advice included: "Be watchful. Park away from the church. Don't panic."

Memories of Christmas 2000 are still fresh in the minds of local church leaders. Six years ago, 19 people were killed in coordinated bombings at 11 churches on Christmas Eve.

In those attacks and others, police suspect the involvement of terrorist mastermind Noordin Mohammed Top. A native of Malaysia, Top remains a most-wanted man in Indonesia for his leadership in Jemaah Islamiya, a group linked to al Qaeda.

According to American intelligence sources, another Jemaah Islamiya leader at a 2002 meeting in Bangkok announced that soft targets like churches would be attacked because foreign embassies had become too well protected.

At the GKI church, parishioners and pastors were calm, but not complacent. An elderly man named Hadianto said he wasn't worried.

"In fact, I have gone to two churches today. I want to know how to get closer to God."

Anita Permana, a church volunteer, admitted, "The situation in Indonesia is not too peaceful, but it doesn't scare me. I have God." Youth pastor Imanuel Kristo said this year, "There was more concern than in previous years about security. Rumors are flying."

But at least the December 18 service at GKI church was unmarred by trouble or worry. The 40-piece children's orchestra lit up "O Come All Ye Faithful." Three colorfully dressed wise men came in to illustrate the sermon on the source of wisdom. Pastor Bambang Soetopo said that in Indonesia "wise men" could be translated "weak men."

He asked if his church was wise or weak. "In Indonesia, we have people using magic and the paranormal. Others depend on their riches."

Taking up the theme of Indonesia's economic troubles, the pastor urged his parishioners to not let their economic troubles cause them to lose sight of God and biblical wisdom. "Our economic welfare is not the end of life, but our spiritual welfare is the end of life."

Seeking Reconciliation

Recently, high-ranking Christian and Muslim leaders in government announced a social movement for reconciliation and reconstruction. About 85 percent of Indonesia is Muslim. Christians make up the second largest group among the nation's 220 million people.

Retired army general Monang Siburian told a group of Christian denominational leaders that this Christmas should be focused on "reconciling and forgetting" past wrongs.

"Indonesia cannot be saved by the army. Indonesia cannot be saved by the politicians. The responsibility for saving Indonesia rests with you Christians. You must lead the nation in reconciling and forgetting."

Siburian told churches that the 2004 tsunami had opened up Indonesians to working together, but that the opening would not last very long.

The church needs to reach out to the rest of society with forgiveness, forgetting of past wrongs, and helping the poor. "There will be no more Indonesia without reconciliation and reconstruction," the influential general told the church leaders.

CT also traveled across town to a church in the poor Kamal district. There, Handi Hendrawan led his flock in prayers that Indonesians would be unified.

The congregation is full of kids from the neighborhood because of an after-school program that Compassion International sponsors. Compassion is a church-centered ministry to kids in more than 20 countries headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The district is a mixture of Muslims, Christians, and non-believers—mostly poor and very troubled. Just down the block from the church, there are dealers selling street drugs.

Pastor Hendrawan says, "God laid on my heart to come here. This program for the children of the poor is a realization of that dream."

Before coming to the church program, each kid was running down a path of no return. Several of them spoke about their lives before joining the after-school program. Yunai was a fragile person when she came. Her teacher recalls, "She was afraid of everything."

Christina felt ashamed and would run away when someone hailed her. Imah wouldn't study or obey her parents. Susi was a "crying girl" who constantly threw tantrums.

Now, the children say that they are "smart," "happy," or "loved like a family member." As their children change, so do the parents. The families are more unified. There is hope for the neighborhood.

Could this be a parable for Indonesia?

So, appropriately, one week before Christmas, the local church rap artist chanted out during the service, "One Day Indonesia will be one."

Tony Carnes, a CT senior writer, is based in New York City.


Muslim grinches steal Bethlehem Christmas World leaders, media blame Israel for fleeing Christians

Posted: December 25, 2005
3:36 p.m. Eastern

By Aaron Klein

BETHLEHEM – With Christmas services here drawing far fewer tourists than in the 1990s and the town's Christian population now at an all-time low, many world leaders and hundreds of major media outlets this week blamed Israel for Bethlehem's decline – often citing false information – while a simple talk with the town's residents reveals a drastically different picture. They say Muslim persecution has been keeping Christians away.

"All this talk about Israel driving Christians out and causing pain is nonsense," a Bethlehem Christian community leader told WND. "You want to know what is at play here, just come throughout the year and see the intimidation from the Muslims. They have burned down our stores, built mosques in front of our churches, stole our real estate and took away our rights. Women have been raped and abducted. So don't tell me about Israel. It's the Muslims."

The Bethlehem leader, like many Christians on the streets here, would not provide his name for publication for fear of retaliation.

Bethlehem's Christian population has declined drastically after the Palestinian Authority took control in December, 1995. Once 90 percent of the city, Christians now compose less than 25 percent, according to Israeli survey information. Christmas celebrations this year attracted about 30,000 tourists – 10,000 more than last year but down from an average of 150,000 in 1994.

Many Christians told WND they face constant Muslim hostility.

One religious novelty-store owner cited examples of Muslim gangs defacing Christian property, the PA replacing Christian leaders on public councils with Muslims, and armed Palestinian factions stirring tensions. One such incident was last week's storming of Bethlehem's City Hall, across the street from the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, by gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror group.

The store owner said "We are harassed but you wouldn't know the truth. No one says anything publicly about the Muslims."

Indeed many leaders in attendance at Christmas Eve Mass in Bethlehem last night took the occasion to blame Israel's recently constructed security fence in the area for Christian woes.

In a televised midnight Christmas speech, PA President Mahmoud Abbas said "Palestinians are seeking a bridge to peace instead of Israeli walls. Unfortunately, Israel is continuing with its destructive policy ... (and) transforming our land into a big jail."

Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, speaking at St. Catherine's Church, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, called for Israel to remove its "separation barrier, which is causing all kinds of hardships and affecting normal life in Bethlehem."

The Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, urged Israel "to build bridges and not walls" and blamed Israel for "[compelling Christians] to leave the land of their birth for foreign lands on account of the political situation."

And a sampling of American media coverage of this weekend's festivities seems to find Israel mostly at fault for the decline in Christian living conditions and population figures.

A widely printed Associated Press article by staff writer Sarah El Deeb opens, "Thousands of tourists and pilgrims gathered in Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations Saturday, bringing a long-missing sense of holiday cheer to Jesus' historic birthplace. ... But Israel's imposing separation barrier at the entrance to town dampened the Christmas spirit and provided a stark reminder of the unresolved conflict."

Today's San Francisco Chronicle states, "For centuries, pilgrims from around the world converged on the Palestinian town of Bethlehem at Christmas, packing Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. ... In 2002, Israel began building a 25-foot concrete wall around the city, severing it from Jerusalem and the northern West Bank. Today, the streets of Bethlehem are quiet."

An earlier article by the Chicago Tribune blamed Israel's fence, constructed in 2002, for collapsing Bethlehem's economy and prompting Christians to leave, even though the mass exodus began seven years prior.

"A towering wall of gray concrete slabs, 30 feet high, cuts across what was once the main road into this town from Jerusalem. Just inside the barrier, past a new Israeli security terminal, a once-bustling neighborhood has become a ghost town. Shops are shuttered or empty, and the streets are deserted. ... The deteriorating economy has led to a steady exodus of the city's Christian residents," the Tribune article reads. notes the various press accounts are factually inaccurate.

·  Contrary to the Chronicle report and scores of other media accounts, there is no barrier that encircles Bethlehem. A fence exists only where the Bethlehem area interfaces with Jerusalem, and only a small segment of the fence is a concrete wall, which Israel says is meant to prevent gunmen from shooting at Israeli motorists.

·  The Bethlehem economy the past few years has actually improved significantly. Tourism has doubled compared to last year, and Bethlehem's main industries are up: Textiles by 50 percent, stone and marble export by 40 percent, and commercial transportation 20 percent. The increases have reportedly brought an influx of millions of dollars into the Bethlehem local economy.

·  Israel says the Israeli Defense Forces this year is making access to Bethlehem easier for tourists. IDF Lt. Col. Aviv Feigel said, "The military will try to speed the process by not checking every tourist bus, but conducting spot checks of random buses instead." The IDF also instituted a bus shuttle service to Bethlehem to speed travel time to the city.

For years, Bethlehem was largely Christian. But when the PA took control in 1995 it publicly expanded Bethlehem's boundaries reportedly to ensure a Muslim majority, incorporating into the city over 30,000 Muslims from adjacent refugee camps. Then-PLO leader Yasser Arafat unilaterally replaced the Christian-dominated city council with a largely Muslim leadership.

Since then, there have been a steady stream of reported abuses and persecution.

An aide to Latin Patriarch Sabbah who asked that his name be withheld told WND the PA has been appropriating lands of the Greek Orthodox Church in Bethlehem and building mosques on the formerly Christian land.

He said he is aware of several cases in which Christian women were raped and murdered, but the alleged criminals were not arrested.

"The Palestinian security forces know who did these crimes. They know where the criminals live. Still nothing to arrest them," said the aide.

The novelty store owner told WND he was shot by Muslims in 2001. He said the assailants are still at large.

Cases involving other alleged anti-Christian violence in Bethlehem include attacks against Christians in 2001 after a Palestinian Muslim leader called for a "jihad" against both Jews and Christians; riots that spilled over from Ramallah in 2002 in which Muslim mobs burned Christian businesses and attempted to destroy churches; and regular reports of shootings and threats.

Israeli security officials say over 100 cases of anti-Christian violence are reported to the Palestinian police every year. They estimate most incidents go unreported.

In one of the most infamous cases of anti-Christian violence, Palestinian terrorists in 2002 holed up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and refused to release the religious staff inside. There were reports the gunmen, members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, looted the facilities, desecrated the church and even used the Bible as toilet paper.

One document later captured by Israel indicated the terrorists also demanded monetary support from Bethlehem town officials.

The Bethlehem store owner said he took comfort from the words of Pope John Paul II, who visited the city the same year as the church siege.

Speaking to a gathering of Christians, the pope said, "Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian heritage and Christian presence in Bethlehem."