SYRIA: 70,000 Syrian Armenians have fled during the war, and few will return

World Watch Monitor (27.06.2018) – – The fragrance of Middle Eastern cuisine wafts into your nostrils, even before you open the door of the café opposite the central railway station in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.


Nerses Kevo, the café’s owner, is one of thousands of Armenian Christians who fled the Syrian civil war and moved to Armenia, with sorrow for what they’d left behind and determination to start a new life in what they call their historic homeland.


One day, amidst the cauldron of war, Kevo found his Aleppo factory, which produced air filters for vehicles, demolished to the ground by air strikes.


“Seeing the result of years of hard work perish overnight, and fearing for our lives, my family and I decided to leave Syria,” Kevo says. “As with so many Syrian Armenians, we were also convinced that we would be most welcome in Armenia, with our compatriots.” According to Armenia’s Ministry of Diaspora, around 25,000 ethnic Armenians have moved there from Syria since the beginning of the war; 3,000 of them later left for other destinations, or returned to Syria.


Syria’s Armenian community, of more than 100,000 pre-war, mainly consists of people whose great-grandparents were exiled from their historic homeland during the Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire in 1915. The Turks forced Armenians into long “death marches”* across the Syrian Desert – Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time – the final destination being the city of Deir ez-Zor, where concentration camps were waiting for the refugees. The ones who escaped or survived the camps made Syria their second home.


Since then, this Christian minority has built dozens of churches, schools and cultural centres, making the Syrian Armenian community one of the main cultural hubs of the worldwide Armenian diaspora, though 70 per cent of the community are now believed to have left the country, according to figures quoted by the Armenian Ambassador to Syria, Arshak Poladian, last year.


Kevo, who now leads the Syrian Armenians’ Union in Armenia, says he thinks the diminution of Syria’s Christian minority is irreversible because, he says, very few refugees will ever go back.


“Henceforth, that region of the Middle East is going to be a dangerous zone for Christians, as any conflict may erupt at any time again. Armenians who have been living in Armenia for four to five years have children settled in schools and universities. They don’t speak Arabic, so taking them back would make their lives difficult,” Kevo explains. “Plus, many of them have started small businesses here. Some people are waiting until it’s the right time to go back and sell their land and property in Syria at a reasonable price, to then completely move out of that country, as are some who have stayed there.”


Armenia and many organisations belonging to the Armenian diaspora worldwide have provided financial and humanitarian aid to Syrian Armenians during the war. The ones who have settled in Armenia will soon receive financial aid in the sum of 3,000,000 Euros from the European Union, Armenian news agency Armenpress reported. The aid will target Syrian Armenians’ housing issues, development of their businesses, and their re-training and skill development.


Kevo’s colleague from the Syrian Armenians’ Union, Vani Nalpantian, joins our conversation. She moved to Armenia from Aleppo in October 2012 with her husband and two children and now imports wooden jewellery boxes from Syria. Nalpantian also co-ordinates programmes for Syrian Armenian women, to teach them various skills such as crafts and cooking, so they can make a living.


She is also convinced that life will never be the same for the dwindling Armenian community in Syria.


“Before the war, we were 100 per cent sure that we were safe and secure in Syria, but it turned out we weren’t. Now that the situation is so volatile over there, we should expect anything, anytime, to happen again,” Nalpantian says.


Through the war

Of all the Armenian communities within Syria, Aleppo’s was the biggest and therefore the most affected by the civil war.


In July 2012, finding themselves the targets of armed militants, Aleppo’s Armenians engaged in self-defence. Around 170 Armenians died, more than 100 were taken hostage (most were later freed after ransoms were paid), and seven others disappeared without a trace.


Of Aleppo’s 17 Armenian churches, only seven survived the war – the others were destroyed or burnt down. Armenian residential areas, cemeteries, shops and factories were also damaged and looted.


Across the country, 11 Armenian schools were destroyed, among them the Karen Jeppe secondary school in Aleppo, named after a Danish missionary who delivered aid to victims of the genocide. The school was the landmark of the Armenian community and an educational hub for the Armenian diaspora, so it was given top priority for reconstruction and reopened in September 2017. Before the war the college had 1,300 students; now there are only 300.


Having been successful entrepreneurs, and possessing a strong flair for trade, over the years Armenians have made a significant contribution to the Syrian economy, thus earning the respect and support of the Syrian state. They have practised their religion, language and culture without any hindrance, according to Nerses Kevo, and have had many privileges in comparison with other minorities. But Kevo says that during the war, because of their close relationship with the state, their position became more precarious.


“From the very beginning of the war, Armenians took Assad’s position. But Aleppo’s Arab population was in opposition,” Kevo explains. “We, the Armenian community, and Arabs were always respecting each other, but we needed to realise that it was dangerous to ostensibly take Assad’s side. We needed to be more diplomatic and remain neutral.”


‘Our Church is our kingdom’

Despite all the doubts and the sense of insecurity, the life of the Armenian community in Syria continues as normal, a lady who has lived in Aleppo throughout the war told World Watch Monitor. Hrip Kananian, the head of the regional administration of the Armenian Relief Cross in Syria, gave an up-to-date insight into the current situation in the country during a visit to Yerevan.


“The task of the leadership of our organisation is to give people hope and make them believe that the city is revitalising. Even if we don’t believe what we preach ourselves, we need to give people hope and encourage them to come back, build their homes and lives,” she says.


“We have estates, land, churches, schools, clubs, all belonging to the community. It will be a shame to abandon all of that and leave the country. We make a very big effort to prolong the life of the community on the Arabic land.”


A teacher for 25 years, Kananian cared for children at an Armenian orphanage during the war. She recalls the morning of 31 December 2015, when she took the children into town to see the New Year decorations and buy them presents.


“I was with the children when my nephew called me and said, ‘Your house has just been bombed’,” Kananian remembers. “I ran home and saw dust all over, burning cars, but the house was not damaged: the bomb had exploded in front of it. Many rockets fell in our district, but my house was not destroyed, which reassured me even more that I needed to stay there and be useful for the community. I stayed with the kids of the orphanage to give them strength.”


Now, as ever, she says the Syrian Armenian community is united around the Church, trying to live “as if nothing has happened”. As in every Armenian community worldwide, the Armenian Church in Syria is not just a religious establishment but also part of the Armenian identity and, in practical terms, the main organiser of community life. As the Armenian Apostolic Church has more members in Syria than the Armenian Catholic and Evangelical Churches, it is the representative of the Armenian people to the state.


“Over the last 100 years, the Church has been the uniting point for everyone. We have become one with the Church. The Syrian state recognises the Armenian community through its Church,” Kananian says. “For us, the leader of the Church is our king, and the Church is our kingdom.”


The future of the Armenian Church in Syria largely depends upon the steps taken at present. Under a new scheme announced in May, by order of the spiritual leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Karekin II, primary school graduate boys of the Syrian Armenian community will be offered places to study in the religious seminary of the Armenian Church in Lebanon for eight years to train to become celibate priests. At the end of the studies, whoever decides not to go down that path can either become a married priest or a teacher.


The Sunday buzz in and around churches is a reassurance that life continues and the Armenian Christian presence within Syria will still continue, says Hrip Kananian. But the number of students in schools and that of clergy in churches will never be the same, she warns, saying the community rarely gets a chance to welcome anyone back.


Kevo will not return there either, but says he is very worried about the huge Christian cultural heritage in Syria, which he says will need care and maintenance. This concern is etched across the man’s face as I take my leave.


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Ethiopian Evangelical sent back to prison for ‘causing outrage to religious feeling’

World Watch Monitor (27.06.2018) – – An Ethiopian court of cassation has rejected an appeal by an Evangelical Christian sentenced to seven months in prison for “causing outrage to religious peace and feeling”.


Temesgen Mitiku Mezemir, 24, the leader of an Evangelical fellowship group, was taken back to prison in the southern city of Arba Minch, after being released on bail in May pending the outcome of his appeal. Mezemir was found guilty in February of defaming the tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant sacred to Orthodox Christians.


The judges of the cassation court in Wolaita Zonal Administration, 300km south of the capital Addis Ababa, said on 20 June they had found “no legal misinterpretations” on Mezemir’s case and upheld the sentence by the lower court.


Local sources told World Watch Monitor that with deduction of time he already spend in detention, Mezemir, 24, still has to serve four months and ten days in jail. However, he can request parole after serving two-thirds of his sentence and could be released in two months.


World Watch Monitor understands the charges against him were brought by members of the predominant Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), to which just under half of Ethiopia’s population belongs.


The EOC is seen by some Ethiopians as a symbol of national identity and its leaders play a prominent role in state and religious affairs. However relations between the EOC and the fast-growing Evangelical churches are often strained, characterised by mutual suspicion.


Arba Minch lies in an ethnically diverse part of Ethiopia known as the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region. Between 1994 and 2007 the proportion of Protestants there jumped from 35 per cent to 55 per cent, while the proportion of Orthodox Christians fell from 27 per cent to 20 per cent.




Mezemir was charged on 23 January after telling EOC members to compare Orthodox accounts of the tabot with information about the Ark of the Covenant on the Internet.

He denied that by downloading a picture of the tabot he had intended to insult the EOC, and explained to the judge at his 26 January hearing that he had downloaded it for reference, showing the website from which he had sourced it. There is no law in Ethiopia against possessing or sharing such photos.


Local Evangelicals expressed concern at Mezemir’s sentence, arguing that it set a precedent whereby anyone could bring unfounded accusations against Evangelicals with impunity. They also expressed concern that the legal process was wrought with irregularities.


One member of Mezemir’s fellowship group told World Watch Monitor that the weeks leading up to the court case had been marked by several violent incidents for which he believed members of the EOC were responsible.


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USA: Thermostats, locks and lights: Digital tools of domestic abuse

By Nellie Bowles


NY Times (23.06.2018) –– The people who called into the help hotlines and domestic violence shelters said they felt as if they were going crazy.


One woman had turned on her air-conditioner, but said it then switched off without her touching it. Another said the code numbers of the digital lock at her front door changed every day and she could not figure out why. Still another told an abuse help line that she kept hearing the doorbell ring, but no one was there.


Their stories are part of a new pattern of behavior in domestic abuse cases tied to the rise of smart home technology. Internet-connected locks, speakers, thermostats, lights and cameras that have been marketed as the newest conveniences are now also being used as a means for harassment, monitoring, revenge and control.


In more than 30 interviews with The New York Times, domestic abuse victims, their lawyers, shelter workers and emergency responders described how the technology was becoming an alarming new tool. Abusers — using apps on their smartphones, which are connected to the internet-enabled devices — would remotely control everyday objects in the home, sometimes to watch and listen, other times to scare or show power. Even after a partner had left the home, the devices often stayed and continued to be used to intimidate and confuse.


For victims and emergency responders, the experiences were often aggravated by a lack of knowledge about how smart technology works, how much power the other person had over the devices, how to legally deal with the behavior and how to make it stop.


“People have started to raise their hands in trainings and ask what to do about this,” Erica Olsen, director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said of sessions she holds about technology and abuse. She said she was wary of discussing the misuse of emerging technologies because “we don’t want to introduce the idea to the world, but now that it’s become so prevalent, the cat’s out of the bag.”


Some of tech’s biggest companies make smart home products, such as Amazon with its Echo speaker and Alphabet’s Nest smart thermostat. The devices are typically positioned as helpful life companions, including when people are at work or on vacation and want to remotely supervise their homes.


Some connected device makers said they had not received reports of their products being used in abuse situations. The gadgets can be disabled through reset buttons and changing a home’s Wi-Fi password, but their makers said there was no catchall fix. Making it easy for people to switch who controls the account of a smart home product can inadvertently also make access to the systems easier for criminal hackers.


No groups or individuals appear to be tracking the use of internet-connected devices in domestic abuse, because the technology is relatively new, though it is rapidly catching on. In 2017, 29 million homes in the United States had some smart technology, according to a report by McKinsey, which estimated that the number was growing by 31 percent a year.


Connected home devices have increasingly cropped up in domestic abuse cases over the past year, according to those working with victims of domestic violence. Those at help lines said more people were calling in the last 12 months about losing control of Wi-Fi-enabled doors, speakers, thermostats, lights and cameras. Lawyers also said they were wrangling with how to add language to restraining orders to cover smart home technology.


Muneerah Budhwani, who takes calls at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said she started hearing stories about smart homes in abuse situations last winter. “Callers have said the abusers were monitoring and controlling them remotely through the smart home appliances and the smart home system,” she said.


Graciela Rodriguez, who runs a 30-bed emergency shelter at the Center for Domestic Peace in San Rafael, Calif., said some people had recently come in with tales of “the crazy-making things” like thermostats suddenly kicking up to 100 degrees or smart speakers turning on blasting music.


“They feel like they’re losing control of their home,” she said. “After they spend a few days here, they realize they were being abused.”


Smart home technology can be easily harnessed for misuse for several reasons. Tools like connected in-home security cameras are relatively inexpensive — some retail for $40 — and are straightforward to install. Usually, one person in a relationship takes charge of putting in the technology, knows how it works and has all the passwords. This gives that person the power to turn the technology against the other person.


Emergency responders said many victims of smart home-enabled abuse were women.


Connected home gadgets are largely installed by men, said Melissa Gregg, a research director at Intel working on the implications of smart home technology. Many women also do not have all the apps on their phones, said Jenny Kennedy, a postdoctoral research fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, who is researching families that install smart home technology.


(One in three women and one in four men have been victims of physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, according to a 2010 Centers for Disease Control report.)


The people who spoke to The Times about being harassed through smart home gadgetry were all women, many from wealthy enclaves where this type of technology has taken off. They declined to publicly use their names, citing safety and because some were in the process of leaving their abusers. Their stories were corroborated by domestic violence workers and lawyers who handled their cases.


Each said the use of internet-connected devices by their abusers was invasive — one called it a form of “jungle warfare” because it was hard to know where the attacks were coming from. They also described it as an asymmetry of power because their partners had control over the technology — and by extension, over them.


One of the women, a doctor in Silicon Valley, said her husband, an engineer, “controls the thermostat. He controls the lights. He controls the music.” She said, “Abusive relationships are about power and control, and he uses technology.”


She said she did not know how all of the technology worked or exactly how to remove her husband from the accounts. But she said she dreamed about retaking the technology soon.


“I have a specific exit plan that I’m in the process of implementing, and one of my fantasies is to be able to say, ‘O.K. Google, play whatever music I want,’” she said. Her plan with the smart thermostat, she said, was to “pull it out of the wall.”


When a victim uninstalls the devices, this can escalate a conflict, experts said. “The abuser can see it’s disabled, and that may trigger enhanced violence,” said Jennifer Becker, a lawyer at Legal Momentum, a women’s rights legal advocacy group.


Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said disabling the devices could also further cut off a victim. “They’re not sure how their abuser is getting in and they’re not necessarily able to figure it out because they don’t know how the systems work,” Ms. Galperin said. “What they do is they just turn everything off, and that just further isolates them.”


Legal recourse may be limited. Abusers have learned to use smart home technology to further their power and control in ways that often fall outside existing criminal laws, Ms. Becker said. In some cases, she said, if an abuser circulates video taken by a connected indoor security camera, it could violate some states’ revenge porn laws, which aim to stop a former partner from sharing intimate photographs and videos online.


Advocates are beginning to educate emergency responders that when people get restraining orders, they need to ask the judge to include all smart home device accounts known and unknown to victims. Many people do not know to ask about this yet, Ms. Becker said. But even if people get restraining orders, remotely changing the temperature in a house or suddenly turning on the TV or lights may not contravene a no-contact order, she said.


Several law enforcement officials said the technology was too new to have shown up in their cases, though they suspected the activity was occurring.


“I’m sure that it’s happening,” said Zach Perron, a captain in the police department in Palo Alto, Calif. “It makes complete sense knowing what I know about the psychology of domestic violence suspects. Domestic violence is largely about control — people think of physical violence but there’s emotional violence, too.”


Some people do not believe the use of smart home devices is a problem, said Ruth Patrick, who runs WomenSV, a domestic violence program in Silicon Valley. She said she had some clients who were put on psychiatric holds — a stay at a medical facility so mental health can be evaluated — after abuse involving home devices.


“If you tell the wrong person your husband knows your every move, and he knows what you’ve said in your bedroom, you can start to look crazy,” she said. “It’s so much easier to believe someone’s crazy than to believe all these things are happening.”


Asking everyone in a home to understand smart home technology is essential, researchers said.


“When we see new technology come out, people often think, ‘Wow, my life is going to be a lot safer,’” said Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. But “we often see the opposite with survivors of domestic violence.”


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KENYA: How outlawing female genital mutilation has driven it underground and led to its medicalization

By Damaris Seleina Parsitau


The Brookings Insititution (19.06.2018) –– The fight against female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) has been fraught with both success and failure, resistance and acceptance. Since Kenya banned the practice in 2011, FGM/C is now increasingly conducted underground, secretly in homes or in clinics by healthcare providers and workers.


The medicalization of FGM/C—defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as any “situation in which FGM/C is practiced by any healthcare provider whether in public or private, clinic or home or elsewhere”—has received recent media and public attention. Earlier this year, a doctor filed a court case asking the Kenyan government to declare the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2011, which outlawed and criminalized FGM/C, unconstitutional. Further, she wanted the Anti-FGM Board, a body created to help eradicate FGM/C and early marriage, also declared unconstitutional.


The doctor, Dr. Tatu Kamau, argues that the dignity of traditional practitioners of female circumcision is disregarded by the law which has failed to stop FGM/C in the country. She claims that FGM/C is still largely practiced in Kenya and is increasing due to medicalization. In Kenya, there is evidence that scrupulous medical personnel collude with parents to circumvent the law by cutting girls in their homes or in their private clinics away from public view.


This trend is evident in both rural and urban Kenya where 15 percent of women and girls have been cut by a medical practitioner. The practice is especially prevalent in Kisii counties in Western Kenya where FGM/C is nearly universal. Drawing on interviews with girls and women who have been cut by health providers, my research shows that parents are increasingly having their girls, some as early as 5 years old, cut by nurses or other healthcare workers either in homes or in health clinics.


Moraa (not her real name), an 18-year-old college girl from Nakuru in the Rift Valley, explained to me how her mother, a primary school teacher, brought a nurse to their home during school holidays to cut her at dawn when she was barely 8 years old. Moraa feels resentful and bitter towards her parents, especially her mother for colluding with a nurse to have her cut without her consent, and has considered suing her parents for violating her rights. Moraa’s story is just one of many cases of medicalized cutting.


The commercialization and medicalization of FGM/C


Throughout my larger research on FGM/C and early marriage, I came across many stories of medicalization of FGM/C both in rural and urban areas in Kenya. A nurse I spoke with told me that she carries out the cut for money. “Look,” she said, “when parents call me to perform the cut on their girls, both in urban and rural areas or even in my clinic, I respond because they pay me handsomely. Some even pay for my bus fare and accommodation; I travel widely to cut girls and women. I see no reason why I shouldn’t do this. I have not forced anyone to undergo the cut. I simply provide my services to those who need them.”


Medical professionals who perform cutting services claim that they are fulfilling the demands of communities and that they help enhance women’s values and marriageability in communities that do not want to abandon the practice. They believe that by doing so they respect patients’ cultural rights since some are of a mature legal age.


However, the real reason driving this is its economic value. Medical professionals are cutting girls and women for payment, replacing the traditional cutters in rural villages. Additionally, the commercialization of FGM/C helps parents and guardians to avert the law and authorities. The medicalization of FGM/C not only provides legitimacy to the cut but it continues to put millions of girls at risk from the consequences of the cut. It also continues to perpetuate and give tacit approval of the harmful practice by discouraging changed behavior and attitudes, thereby leading to the normalization of the cut in medical spaces.


While the medicalization of FGM/C is not a new phenomenon, its growing popularity is worrying and points to emerging shifts and tensions in the war to end it—a cat and mouse game between resistant communities and authorities. And while the medicalization of FGM/C went under the radar as authorities and stakeholders focused on traditional cutters in rural villages as well as alternative rites of passage, it is now emerging as a new frontier in the war against the harmful practice. Global, regional, and local focus should now shift away from traditional cutters to medical practitioners.


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EGYPT: Copt’s fields torched after rumours he was turning his house into a church

World Watch Monitor (26.06.2018) – – A Coptic Christian from Beni Suef governorate in Egypt saw his wheat fields set on fire, just four days after he was accused of planning to turn his house into a church.


On 2 June, Ibrahim Sadeq Ayad from Ezbed Ragy village, near the city of El-Fashn, informed the police that his 2.5 acres of land had been torched by unknown assailants, World Watch Monitor was told by the lawyer who accompanied him to the police station.


Three days prior to the incident, Ayad was at the same police station but in a different position. According to his lawyer, Bassem Farid, a report had been filed against him, accusing him of turning his home into a church.


As there is no church in the village, Ayad has hosted a Sunday school at his home for the past four years, led by church ministers from El-Fashn.


On 29 May, Ayad had a visitor from the neighbouring village of Ezbet Marco: the pastor of St. Mary and St. Michael’s Church, Fr. Eshaq Kastour, who had come to pray for Ayad’s sick wife, at his invitation.




As there is no formal church in Ezbed Ragy, local Coptic Christians used to go to the church of St. Mary and St. Michael in the neighbouring village of Ezbat Marco, which is 8km away. But in October 2012, they were attacked by some local Muslims who protested against their regular visits. Since that time, they have been going to church in El-Fashn, which is twice as far from home.


“When the Muslim villagers of Ezbet Ragy saw the priest visit Ibrahim’s home, they concluded that his home would turn into a church,” Farid said. Then they filed a complaint with the police against him and Ayad was arrested.


Three days later, the Coptic man was released after signing a pledge that he would not turn his home into a church and that no prayer meetings for children would be held there again.


The next day his land was burnt and his lawyer implied a link between that incident and his release. No arrests have been made in relation to the burning of the land so far.


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