In Lebanon, a monastery brings together Christians scattered by war

A view of the Monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya in the heart of the Qadisha valley, in Zgharta district, LebanonJune 23, 2019. REUTERS/Imad Creidi

By Ayat Basma

QOZHAYA, Lebanon (Reuters) – The last time Samuel Botros stepped into the Lebanese monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya was in 1978. He was 24, newly married, and the country was in the grip of an all-out war. Like many of his generation, he left. It took him 41 years to return.

The 1975-90 civil war may be over in Lebanon but conflicts in nearby countries like Iraq and Syria have devastated entire communities where Christians once lived alongside Muslims. That has triggered an exodus among people of both faiths, especially among minority sects – like Botros’ Syriac Orthodox community whose roots are in early Christianity.

The monastery, which is nestled in a remote valley in the northern Lebanese mountains and dates from the fourth century, is a meeting place for Christians who have fled conflict.

“It is the war that did this to us. It is the wars that continue to leave behind destruction and force people to leave,” said Botros, visiting the monastery as part of a gathering of his community’s scout group – their first in the region since the 1950s.

The scout group’s roughly 150 members include people living in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and further afield. Lebanon was the only country where they could all meet easily and safely, Botros said.

In Iraq, years of conflict, most recently with Islamic State, erased much of the Christian heritage in ancient cities like Mosul and Sinjar in the north. In Syria’s civil war, some of the oldest churches in Aleppo, Homs and other cities were damaged.

Botros, now 65, is about to retire in Sweden where he made his home years ago. He is father and grandfather to children who know Lebanon only through photos.

“I would like them to visit so that when I pass, there is something to pull them back,” he said.

ANCIENT SANCTUARY

On Sundays and public holidays, the monastery’s small church, with the bell tower and facade, etched into the cliffs is full of people huddled in the pews or standing at the back of the vaulted interior.

Its patron is Saint Anthony, a monk who is believed to have lived in rural Egypt in the fourth or fifth century.

“This place has always been a shrine…we don’t even know when it started. Even when there was no development…people still came,” said Father Fadi Imad, the priest who gives sermons.

Qozhaya lies within a valley known as the Valley of Saints, or Qannoubine in ancient Syriac, part of a wider valley network called Qadisha that has a long history as a refuge for monks. At one time, Qadisha was home to hundreds of hermitages, churches, caves and monasteries. The monastery of Saint Anthony is the last surviving one.

It was an early home for Lebanon’s Christian Maronites, the first followers of the Roman Catholic church in the East.

The Maronites and sometimes the Druze, a Muslim sect, sought the sanctuary of the mountains away from the political and religious dynasties of the times with whom they did not always agree, Father Imad said.

“The inhabitants of this mountain…and they were not only Christians, came here because they were persecuted and weak,” he said.

“Qozhaya holds in its heart 1,600 years of history and it doesn’t belong to anyone, church or faith, … it belongs to the homeland,” he said.

The monastery is surrounded by forests of pine and cedar and orchards that can only be reached via a narrow, winding road.

Its grounds include a cave where visitors light candles, a museum housing the Middle East’s oldest printing press in ancient Syriac and halls for resident priests.

Visitors nowadays include foreign and Arab tourists and local residents including Muslims who sometimes come to ask for a blessing.

Father Imad said the monastery was the safest it had been in its history despite being surrounded by countries at war or suffering its aftermath.

“No one is telling us that they are coming to kill us anymore … at least in Lebanon,” he said.

Before he left, Botros and his fellows stood for a final photo outside the building with the valley behind. With their flags and scarves around their necks, they smiled and cheered as the bells rang.

“What I have seen today I will never forget for as long as I live,” Botros said.

“No matter how long it takes, the son always returns to the mother.”

(Reporting by Ayat Basma; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Gunmen kill six in second church attack in Burkina Faso

Map of Burkina Faso

Gunmen killed six people including a priest outside a Catholic church in Burkina Faso on Sunday, the government said, the second attack on Christians in two weeks in a nation increasingly overrun by jihadists.

Congregants were leaving church around 9 a.m. (0900 GMT) in the town of Dablo in the Central North region when about 20 men encircled them and shot six dead, according to a government statement and local sources.

The attackers then burned the church, looted a pharmacy and some other stores, and left, Dablo mayor Ousmane Zongo told Reuters. The government statement only mentioned the burning of a shop and two vehicles.

“These terrorist groups are now attacking religion with the macabre aim of dividing us,” it said.

Burkina Faso has been beset by a rise in attacks in 2019 as groups with links to Islamic State and al Qaeda based in neighboring Mali seek to fuel local tensions and extend their influence over the porous borders of the Sahel, the arid scrubland south of the Sahara.

The government declared a state of emergency in several northern provinces bordering Mali in December because of deadly Islamist attacks.

But violence has only worsened since. Two French soldiers were killed in an operation to rescue four people taken hostage in Burkina last week, France said. Over 100,000 people in Burkina Faso have been displaced by the unrest this year, the United Nations has said.

Roughly 55% to 60% of Burkina Faso’s population is Muslim, with up to a quarter Christian. The two groups generally live in peace and frequently intermarry.

Then in late April unidentified gunmen killed a pastor and five congregants at a Protestant church, also in the north, suggesting the violence was taking a religious turn.

(Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Indonesian police warn Islamists against raids in search of Santa hats

Islamic Defenders Front

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesian police appealed on Thursday for tolerance and respect for other people’s religious celebrations after an Islamist group threatened to raid businesses to check for Muslims being forced to wear Santa Claus hats or other Christmas garb.

The hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) said this week it would conduct “sweeping operations” in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, and that forcing Muslims to wear Christmas attire was a violation of their human rights.

Indonesia is home to several religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and people who follow traditional beliefs.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion in an officially secular state though tension between followers of different faiths can flare.

“There can be no sweeping operations … members of the public should respect other religions that are carrying out celebrations,” national police chief Tito Karnavian told police during a security exercise in the capital, Jakarta.

The FPI said it aimed to enforce a fatwa, or decree, issued by Indonesia’s Islamic Clerical Council in 2016 prohibiting business owners from forcing employees to wear Christmas clothing.

“We will raid businesses in anticipation of them being stubborn about this and we will be accompanied by police,” said Novel Bakmukmin, head of the FPI’s Jakarta chapter.

Employers forcing staff to wear Christmas clothes were violating their rights.

“Businesses should be aware that there should be no forcing,” he said.

The Islamic Clerical Council’s decrees are not legally binding but serve as guidelines for Indonesian Muslims.

Christmas is widely celebrated across Indonesia and holiday decorations are ubiquitous, especially at shops, restaurants and malls where many enthusiastic workers – even Muslims – don Santa hats or elf costumes.

The FPI built its reputation with raids on restaurants and bars serving alcohol during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

In recent years, it has turned its attention to Christian celebrations.

The group has also said it wants the Jakarta city government to stop sponsoring New Year celebrations, which attract many thousands of people.

About 90,000 police officers will be on duty cross the country during the end-of-year holidays, in an operation largely aimed at preventing militant attacks.

Attacks on churches in Jakarta and elsewhere on Christmas Eve in 2000, killed nearly 20 people. Ever since, authorities have stepped up security at churches and tourist spots for the holiday.

(Reporting by Djohan Widjaya and Kanupriya Kapoor; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Islamist’s lure youngsters in the Philippines with payments, promise of paradise

A teenager who fought alongside Islamic-state linked militants in Marawi City, speaks to Reuters during an interview in the southern Philippines July 11, 2017 after fleeing the fighting. REUTERS/Martin Petty

By Martin Petty

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – When he saw his commander holding the severed head of one of his neighbors, teenage Islamist fighter Jalil knew it was time to escape from Marawi City.

Churches and homes had been ransacked, people had been shot or taken hostage, and now Philippines government troops, planes and helicopters were pounding the Islamic State loyalists who had taken over large parts of the town on May 23.

Six days into the occupation, 17-year-old Jalil said he came across a crowd of fellow fighters led by rebel chief Abdullah Maute, including a boy who looked about 10. They were cheering the beheading of a Christian from Jalil’s neighborhood who was accused of being a spy.

“Abdullah Maute was holding a man’s head, he was shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is Greatest),” said Jalil, who spoke on condition his identity was not revealed to protect him from reprisals. “They chanted with him. At that point, I realized I had to get away. I wanted no part in this.”

Jalil’s story could not be independently verified. Authorities have placed him in pinesprotective custody and say he has helped identify militants fighting in Marawi.

Jalil is one of hundreds of Muslim youths lured by Islamic State followers in Mindanao, a poverty-plagued southern island of the Philippines that governments in Southeast Asia fear could become a regional stronghold for the ultra-radical group as it loses territory in Syria and Iraq.

Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR), says foreign recruiters have been active in Mindanao for years but Islamic State’s powerful propaganda and the rise of the local Maute clan of militants have brought a surge in followers.

“The recruitment is now happening very, very rapidly,” said Banlaoi, who monitors mobilization in Mindanao via informants and police interrogation reports of militants. “They’re very sophisticated. They are serious community organizers and serious recruiters.”

Schools, madrassas (Islamic schools) and even day-care centers with extremist leanings have been identified as recruiting grounds.

Authorities are working with religious teachers to keep radical ideas out of mosques and off curriculums, according to army spokesman Colonel Romeo Brawner. But provincial leaders and some military officers say the efforts are weak, partly because militants have plenty of money to reel youths into their ranks.

 

Government female soldiers wearing white hijabs and child evacuees make peace signs as part of their psychosocial activities at one of the evacuation centres in Balo-i town, Lanao Del Norte, southern Philippines, September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

“BACK IN SERVICE”

Jalil said his involvement began when he was 11 at a mosque in Piagapo, a rustic municipality 20 km (12 miles) from Marawi, where an imam convinced him to join 40 youngsters at a training camp in return for meals and 15,000 pesos ($294) per month.

He underwent daily weapons and combat training, and teachings from the Koran. He was expelled from the program after only three months, he said, when he revealed details about his network during a mock interrogation.

Jalil heard nothing from his recruiters for six years, but the day before the Marawi siege began, there was a knock at his door. Outside was a teenager, and behind him a pickup truck with 10 other youngsters on board.

“I knew them, they were my classmates in training,” he said. “They told me ‘you’re now back in service.'”

The ubiquitous villages with tattered mosques, wooden homes and dirt-track roads carved into the jungles and mountains of Mindanao are fertile ground for recruiting unschooled youngsters and turning them into militants in camps far off the radar.

The army discovered one such training ground in Piagapo, after a three-day battle that killed 36 Maute fighters, among them foreigners and an imam. That was one month before the Marawi siege.

Reuters spoke to two teenagers from that camp, who said they were lured by promises of money, marriage and paradise after death.

They spoke on condition their full identities be withheld because authorities were not aware of their involvement, which they said ceased when the imam was killed. Their accounts could not be independently verified.

“We were trained how to evade checkpoints. We were trained how to ambush, to move silently,” said 18-year-old Abdul, who described how he and others learned to dismantle rifles, make bombs and engage in hand-to-hand combat.

Faisal, 19, said the imam held Koran classes in small jungle huts, while foreigners, whose nationalities he did not know, trained them to fight non-believers.

“The imam told us we would be rewarded with marriage to any beautiful girl we want,” he said.

The government says poor and uneducated males like Abdul and Faisal are easy prey in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which comprises five of Mindanao’s 27 provinces.

In 2015-2016, the ARMM had the lowest secondary-school enrolment and the highest dropout rate, according to the education ministry, with just 32.4 percent of ARMM youth in school compared to the national average of 68 percent.

Nearly half of ARMM families live in poverty, under the government’s monthly income threshold of 9,064 pesos ($177), according to official data, compared to the national average of 16.5 percent. In Lanao del Sur, where Marawi is located, 66.3 percent of families live in poverty.

 

ONLINE PROFILING

But not all targets are poor, rural and uneducated.

Urban youth and students are also on the radar of recruiters who have infiltrated schools and universities and mastered social media, both to spread propaganda and to spot candidates for radicalization among Mindanao Muslims, known as Moros.

Prime targets, said Banlaoi, are those posting on social media about economic and social exclusion, or historical injustice. A hot topic is the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF) peace deal with the government, which promised to make ARMM a self-governing region called Bangsamoro (nation of Moros) but has been dogged by delays, breakdowns and mistrust.

Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF’s top negotiator, said extremists exploit disillusionment with the Bangsamoro plan and promote violence by teaching only selected verses of the Koran.

“We monitor them, but because the recruitment is so secretive, we cannot manage to do everything,” he told Reuters.

Banlaoi said extremists had access to technology used in the Middle East by Islamic State to track chatter on platforms like Facebook and Telegram, find suitable candidates and probe their friend networks. These recruiters included Indonesians and Malaysian militants who were “very persistent”.

The government’s fight is as much about winning hearts and minds among the Bangsamoro people as it is the battle for Marawi that has now ground on for nearly four months.

Militants try to sway public opinion with slick videos celebrating their triumph over “crusaders” they say are destroying Muslim homes and businesses in Marawi with artillery and air strikes.

The military says its focus groups have shown some displaced Marawi children “idolise” the militants. It has sent female soldiers to counsel children in evacuation camps and identify those already radicalized.

Jalil, the teen fighter said he was at first inspired by the rousing speeches of Abdullah Maute and his brother, Omarkhayam. But he was appalled by the bloodletting that ensued.

“I can’t forget what I saw. Every street corner there were dead bodies, Christians and Muslims,” he said.

On the night of the execution he witnesses, Jalil abandoned his post guarding a bridge and rode a motorcycle for 50 km (31 miles) to evade army checkpoints. He turned himself in to police two weeks later.

A former military intelligence officer who has tracked the Maute clan said the military under-estimated them as a “ragtag group”. But the Mautes have demonstrated a capacity to regroup and, thanks to deep pockets and the respect they command among local youth, would probably strengthen after Marawi is retaken by “filling vacancies” left by hundreds of dead fighters.

The worst-case scenario, the officer said, was if the Maute brothers survive. “Recruitment will be massive,” he said. “There are lots of students idolizing them.”

 

(Additional reporting by Tom Allard in MARAWI CITY and Neil Jerome Morales in MANILA; Editing by John Chalmers and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

 

Canadian pastor returns home after release from N. Korean prison

FILE PHOTO - South Korea-born Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim stands during his trial at a North Korean court in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, North Korea on December 16, 2015. REUTERS/KCNA/File Photo

By Jim Finkle

TORONTO (Reuters) – A Canadian pastor who was imprisoned in North Korea for more than two years has arrived home in Canada, where he was resting after being reunited with his family on Saturday, a family spokeswoman said.

Hyeon Soo Lim, formerly the senior pastor at one of Canada’s largest churches, had disappeared on a mission to North Korea in early 2015. He was sentenced to hard labor for life in December 2015 on charges of attempting to overthrow the Pyongyang regime.

North Korea’s KCNA news agency said on Wednesday that the 62-year-old Lim had been released on humanitarian grounds, suggesting his health was poor. His family later said he was not in critical condition.

Lim’s release comes amid heightened tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, though authorities have not said there is any connection between his release and efforts to defuse the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program.

Family members will hold a Saturday afternoon press conference at his church, Light Presbyterian Church in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, said spokeswoman Lisa Pak.

It was not clear if Pastor Lim would appear at the press conference, according to Pak, who said he would attend Sunday services at his church.

The Canadian government issued a statement on Saturday, saying it joined Lim’s family and congregation in celebrating his homecoming.

“Canada has been actively engaged on Mr. Lim’s case at all levels, and we will continue to support him and his family now that he has returned,” the statement said.

Lim’s family in June urged the Canadian government to bolster efforts to seek Lim’s release, following the death of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died days after being released from a North Korean prison in a coma.

Footage from Japan’s ANN television showed Lim walking on a tarmac next to Canada’s national security adviser, Daniel Jean, at the Yokota Air Base on the outskirts of Tokyo, in a stop en route to his home.

(Reporting by Jim Finkle in Toronto; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Mary Milliken)

Nigeria church shooting kills 11

Nigeria church shooting kills 11

ABUJA (Reuters) – Gunmen killed 11 people and wounded 18 others in a church in southeastern Nigeria on Sunday in an attack arising from a feud between members of the local community, officials said.

However, police believe that a man the gunmen were hunting for was not present in the church and so escaped the attack.

The attackers struck the church in Ozubulu early in the morning, said Garba Umar, head of police in Anambra state.

They were believed to have been trying to kill a local man, who was not identified by the authorities.

“The gunmen came thinking that their target was in the church but incidentally he was not,” Umar said, adding that the violence may be linked to drug-trafficking.

No arrests have been made, he said.

Nigeria’s southeast is predominantly Christian and the attack is a rare act of violence at a church.

Anambra State Governor Willie Obiano said the attack stemmed from a feud between members of the local community who were living outside Nigeria.

“We are not going to relent until we bring those that perpetrated this heinous crime to book,” he said.

Nigeria is wracked by insecurity, with Islamist insurgency Boko Haram having killed more than 20,000 people since 2009, sparking one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.

Ethnically-charged violence is common throughout the central states and militancy is a constant threat in the oil-rich southeast.

(Reporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu; Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Adrian Croft)

Gunmen kill five Egyptian police south of Cairo

CAIRO (Reuters) – Gunmen ambushed an Egyptian security checkpoint on Friday, opening fire on a car and killing five policemen in an area just south of the capital, the state-run MENA news agency and the Interior Ministry said.

Three gunmen on a motorbike attacked police in al-Badrasheen area of Giza province, 30 km (20 miles) south of Cairo, killing two officers and three conscripts in the latest attack on Egyptian security forces battling an Islamist insurgency.

“A police officer who was near the site of the attack exchanged fire with the assailants forcing them to flee,” the ministry statement said.

Witnesses said attackers blasted the vehicle with automatic rifles then took equipment and threw petrol bombs inside the car before fleeing. Residents extinguished the fire.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but Egyptian security forces have been battling the local affiliate of Islamic State in the northern Sinai area and attacks have spread to other parts of Egypt.

Hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed since 2013 in the Sinai Peninsula. At least 23 soldiers were killed last week when suicide car bombs hit two checkpoints in the region in an attack claimed by Islamic State. It was one of the bloodiest assaults on security forces in years.

Islamic State has also intensified attacks in other areas, often targeting Coptic Christians. About 100 Copts have been killed since December.

In May gunmen assault on a group of Copts in a bus traveling to a monastery, killing 29 people and two bombings of churches killed more than 40 people a month earlier.

Church sources on Thursday said Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christians and the Egyptian Catholic church have been told by church leaders to cancel all events, camps and activities outside churches in July because of a security threat.

(Reporting by Ahmed Tolba; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alison Williams)

Egypt’s Coptic Christians to halt activities after security threat, sources say

Egyptian priests react during the funeral of victims of the Palm Sunday bombings, at St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Monastery "Deir Mar Mina" in Alexandria, Egypt April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christians have been told by church leaders to cancel all events and activities outside churches in July because of a security threat, church and security sources said on Thursday.

The warning followed an attack in May by Islamic State on Copts traveling to a monastery in central Egypt that killed 29 people. A month earlier, 44 people were killed in bomb attacks at a cathedral and another church on Palm Sunday.

Sources said the warning was given to individual church leaders by a representative of the Coptic Orthodox Pope. Copts on trips or youth camps had been told to cut short their activities and return home early.

The Egyptian Catholic church said it got the same instructions. The church “complied with the interior minister’s decision to cancel church trips and camps until further notice,” Father Rafik Greish, a spokesman for the Coptic Catholic Church, told Reuters late on Thursday.

A Coptic church official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, told Reuters that his church received “oral instructions this week, nothing written, to prevent panic,” he said.

The source said the church was provided with more security forces to secure the gates of the church this week.

Egypt faces an Islamist insurgency led by the Islamic State group in the Sinai Peninsula, where hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed since 2013.

At least 23 soldiers were killed last week when suicide car bombs tore through two military checkpoints in the region in an attack claimed by Islamic State. It was one of the bloodiest assaults on security forces in years.

But Islamic State has also intensified attacks in the mainland in recent months, often targeting Coptic Christians. About 100 Copts have been killed since December.

(Reporting by Malak Ghobrial; additional reporting by Mahmoud Morad, Amina Ismail and Ahmed MOhamed Hassan; writing by Patrick Markey, editing by Larry King)

‘He said he was Christian, they shot him,’ says son who saw father die

Hanaa Youssef and Mina Habib, the widow and son of a man who was killed in a militant attack against Coptic Christians last month, hold the victim's portrait in Minya, Egypt June 8, 2017. Picture taken June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

By Ali Abdelaty

DAYR JARNOUS, Egypt (Reuters) – Egyptian schoolboy Mina Habib rarely leaves his house these days. The 10-year-old is still recovering from seeing Islamist gunmen kill his father for being Christian.

In an attack claimed by Islamic State, gunmen ambushed a group of Coptic Christians traveling to a monastery in Minya in southern Egypt last month, killing 29 and wounding 24, with Mina’s father Adel among the dead.

A month later, residents of Dayr Jarnous, a Christian village that was home to seven of those killed, say the government is not providing proper security and has done nothing to help the victims’ families.

Mina is receiving therapy at a local church, in the absence of any treatment from the government. His brother Marco, 14, who also escaped the attack, visits a monastery to read the bible as a form of therapy.

Still shaken, village residents fear they are exposed if there is another attack and want President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to keep his promise to protect Christians. There was no extra security in the village, with only a police point out in the desert where the attack took place.

In one of the first detailed eyewitness accounts of the Minya attack, which has led to retaliatory Egyptian air strikes in Libya, Mina told Reuters it was pure chance that he and Marco were spared.

They were on a pickup truck headed to the monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor when the militants stopped them.

Ahead, blood-soaked bodies littered the desert road to the monastery and two vehicles had clearly been attacked.

“We saw dead people, just dumped on the ground,” Mina recounted.

“They asked my father for identification then told him to recite the Muslim profession of faith. He refused, said he was Christian. They shot him and everyone else with us in the car.”

Mina said there were around 15 gunmen. He does not know why he and Marco were spared when other children were shot.

“They saw us in the back of the truck. They made us get down and a man wearing camouflage like the army pointed his gun at us, but another one in all black told him to let us go. Every time they shot someone they would yell God is great.”

Marco added: “They had Egyptian accents like us and they were all masked except for two of them … They looked like us and did not have beards.”

LION HEARTED

Three vehicles were attacked. A bus and a car taking children and families to the monastery were the first targets.

The gunmen shot out the windows then killed all the men and fired at the feet of the women and children. They took the women’s gold jewelry, eyewitnesses said. Some children were killed.

When one of the gunmen’s vehicles had a flat tire, they stopped Adel Habib’s truck, which was carrying Christian workers, shot them and took the truck.

Marco stopped a car when the militants left and put Mina in it to get him to safety. When at last he got mobile phone reception on the desert road, Marco called their mother.

“I first thought it was someone trying to take the truck, I never thought it would be terrorism,” said Hanaa Youssef. “My husband has been going to the monastery for 25 years and nothing like this had ever happened.”

Now she keeps her children at home – neighbors have written “Marco and Mina the lion-hearted” on its walls – only letting the boys out for therapy in church. Marco was unavailable for interview; he was at a monastery reading the bible.

“Ever since the accident I am always at home,” said Mina.

“Security, the government, and the army are negligent. No one protects us other than God. It is known that Christians are not protected in this country,” said Kirolos Ishak, a university student whose father was also killed that day.

Coptic Christians, who make up 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 92 million, say they have been persecuted for years. In recent months attacks have increased, leaving about 100 dead.

Egypt’s Copts support Sisi, who has vowed to crush Islamist militants and protect Christians. He declared a three-month state of emergency after church bombings in April.

But many Christians feel the state is failing to protect them.

“Our Muslim neighbors say ‘you chose Sisi’ but ever since he came to power we are the ones who have suffered, not them,” said Youssef, the boys’ mother. “Churches and people have been attacked, people have been kidnapped, we are suffering.”

(Reporting by Ali Abdelaty; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Giles Elgood)

On Boko Haram front line, Nigerian vigilantes amass victories and power

Members of the local militia, otherwise known as CJTF, sit in the back of a truck during a patrol in the city of Maiduguri, northern Nigeria June 9, 2017. Picture taken June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye.

By Ed Cropley

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – His broken arm is in a bamboo splint, his torso pock-marked with shrapnel and his jaw wired together by a Nigerian army surgeon.

But 38-year-old vigilante Dala Aisami Angwalla is undaunted by two nearly fatal brushes in the last year with Boko Haram, one involving a landmine, the other an ambush, and is determined to rid northeast Nigeria of the jihadists.

It is a sentiment shared by thousands of other volunteer vigilantes who have been instrumental in checking Boko Haram’s progress but whose presence now casts a shadow over longer-term efforts to bring stability to the troubled Lake Chad region.

“Why do I do it? Because it’s my country,” the father-of-five told Reuters in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and epicenter of Boko Haram’s bloody, eight-year campaign to build an Islamic caliphate in the southern reaches of the Sahel.

“My children are OK. When I go out, they say ‘Go well, father. May God keep you safe,'” he said, fingering a charm around his neck that he believes keeps him from harm’s way.

Angwalla belongs to the 30,000-strong “Civilian Joint Task Force” (CJTF) now fighting on the front line of Nigeria’s struggle against Boko Haram after helping the military push the Islamists from towns across Borno in the last three years.

Despite a string of victories, the CJTF has drawn criticism.

Rights groups accuse its members of abuses ranging from extortion to rape and say their entry into the fray three years ago may be the reason for a sharp rise in Boko Haram violence against civilians.

CJTF leaders, who say 670 of its “boys” have been killed in action, say bar a “few bad people” its members are registered, impartial and professional.

FEAR OF ARMED GROUPS

The CJTF, most of whom are unemployed men, has asked the government to provide payment for its operations, a demand seen by political observers as ominous given the blurred lines in Nigeria between local politics and orchestrated violence.

With national elections in 2019 and the long-term illness of President Muhammadu Buhari pointing to a power vacuum, fears about organized armed groups are on the rise.

“In Nigeria in particular, vigilantism did much to turn an anti-state insurgency into a bloodier civil war, pitting Boko Haram against communities and leading to drastic increases in violence,” the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, said.

“In the longer term, vigilantes may become political foot soldiers, turn to organized crime or feed communal violence,” it said in a February report.

Few in Nigeria would question the significance of the CJTF’s role against Boko Haram, whose fighters have killed at least 20,000 people and displaced 2.7 million. Aid experts say 1.4 million are on the brink of famine after years without harvests.

Set up as a Sunni fundamentalist group influenced by the Wahhabi movement, Boko Haram has led a violent uprising since 2009. The group, whose name means ‘Western education is forbidden’, has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

CUTLASSES AND ARROWS

Building on Nigeria’s long-standing tradition of communal self-defense, the vigilante group was founded in Maiduguri in 2013 when groups of young men decided they had had enough of the Islamist militants living in their midst.

Their cutlasses, bows and arrows, and rudimentary shotguns were little match for Boko Haram’s modern weaponry, mostly captured in raids on Nigerian army and police positions, but their local knowledge was decisive.

Hundreds of suspected militants were detained by soldiers and police acting on CJTF tip-offs in raids that turned the tide against Boko Haram in Maiduguri, a city of a million established as a military outpost by British colonial authorities in 1907.

“Within one week, we secured the whole center of Maiduguri,” said Abba Aji Kalli, a 51-year-old accountant who is also CJTF’s state-wide coordinator. “The army were strangers but we live with Boko Haram in the same community, in the same neighborhood. We know who are the members of Boko Haram.”

Three years on, the CJTF forms the backbone of Borno’s anti-Boko Haram defenses, attracting the praise of Buhari, who in December declared the Islamist group “technically” defeated.

“They have been of tremendous help to the military because they are from there. They have local intelligence,” Buhari said.

CHEEK-BY-JOWL WITH BOKO HARAM

Now, most day-to-day security in Maiduguri and the refugee camps that surround it falls to black-clad CJTF members patrolling entrances to markets or sitting behind sandbag barricades with machetes, muskets and bows and arrows.

“Without the CJTF, there would be no security at all,” said Tijani Lumwani, head of the 40,000-strong Muna Garage refugee camp, hit by several suicide bombers in March. “They live in the community. We trust them. Without them, we would have no peace.”

Most CJFT vigilantes, including Angwalla, go unrewarded for their efforts, although 1,850 who have received paramilitary training are given a 15,000 naira per month ($48) stipend by the Borno government.

Around 450 have been incorporated into the main security forces and 30 into the intelligence services, group coordinator Kalli said, although he and his colleagues believe that is not enough and want more money and jobs to follow.

Buhari spokesman Femi Adesina said there would be “some sort of demobilization” for CJTF members but denied any obligation to provide jobs. “The CJTF was a voluntary thing. There was no agreement that ‘You do this, and the government will do that.'”

Borno state attorney general Kaka Shehu Lawal said the local government was investing heavily in agriculture and other industrial projects to create jobs for unemployed CJTF members who otherwise had the potential to become trouble-makers.

“We need them not to be idle because an idle man is the devil’s workshop,” Lawal said.

WHAT PRICE PEACE?

However, allegations of CJTF abuses have raised fears among diplomats and rights workers that the counter-insurgency effort has spawned a provincial militia the authorities may not be able to control.

Amnesty International researcher Isa Sanusi said he had credible reports of “widespread” abuses by CJTF guards in Borno, including extorting money from refugees seeking access to camps or sexual favors in exchange for food.

Kalli said a handful of culprits had been arrested.

Rights groups say that if the vigilantes fail to receive what they feel is due to them, they are likely to become another long-term source of instability. “They will come out of this crisis with some kind of entitlement that will make them think they are above the law,” Amnesty’s Sanusi said.

(Reporting by Ed Cropley, editing by Peter Millership)