United Arab Emirates

UAE Authorities Release Filipino Pastor
Philippines Requests Court Dismissal of Charges

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, December 24 (Compass) -- A Filipino Christian pastor jailed in
the United Arab Emirates since November 12 for distributing Christian
materials in Arabic was granted temporary release last week by local
authorities, pending a full investigation into his case.

The Rev. Fernando P. Alconga, 54, was released on December 17 from
Al-Quasis Prison, where he had been detained after initial police
interrogations at the general headquarters of Dubai's Criminal
Investigation Division (CID).

Alconga's arrest was apparently triggered by an incident near a Dubai
shopping center the previous day, November 11, when he had offered an
Arab in western dress a packet of Christian materials, including an
Arabic New Testament and an audio tape entitled "The God Story."

Seeing the man sitting in his car near the building, Alconga said he had
approached him saying, "I have Christian materials in Arabic. Do you
want one?"  Taking the package, the man opened it, pulled out the New
Testament and started to read.

"I did not expect the gentleman to complain," Alconga remarked after his
release, "especially because when I asked him to give the materials back
if he did not want them, he told me he wanted to keep them."

But the following day, Alconga was approached by two men in Arab dress
who saw him sleeping in his car in the shopping mall's parking lot.
Knocking on the car window to awaken him, the men asked if he had Arabic
materials to sell. When he told them he had no Arabic materials left,
they asked to see what he had in other languages.

The pastor got out and opened the trunk of his car, showing them a bag
of Bibles and Christian literature in the Russian, Chinese, French and
Indonesian languages. As soon as he closed the trunk, the men identified
themselves as CID agents and took him to police headquarters for
questioning.

It was the first time in nearly nine years of ministry among Filipino
congregations in the UAE, Alconga said, that he had ever been approached
by police authorities regarding his Christian activities.

Alconga pastors the Redeemer and King Filipino Church of Ras al-Khaimah,
the UAE's northernmost emirate some 55 miles north of Dubai. Ordained by
the Conservative Baptist Association of the Philippines, Alconga comes
from Iloilo in the central Philippines. He and his wife Naomi have two
sons.

"It was difficult to be confined," Alconga admitted after his release,
although he said he was treated with respect and never abused
physically.

Alconga's initial requests for legal counsel and a translator were
denied during detention hearings, and he was required to sign documents
in Arabic, which he cannot read. The pastor was not allowed to have his
Bible or other written materials while under detention.

 From Dubai, Philippines Consul General Jose A.P. Ampeso confirmed to
Compass today that he had written to the attorney general of the UAE,
formally requesting Alconga's release and the dismissal of charges
against him. "It is the view of my government that it is not good for
the UAE to have him incarcerated, or to be viewed as intolerant," Ampeso
said.

According to one member of the team of lawyers representing Alconga, the
public prosecutor has not yet finished his investigation on the case.
Once this is completed, a court hearing is expected in early January.

Under the UAE penal code, both the practice of "missionary activity in
favor of another religion" and the possession of written or taped
materials "opposing . the fundamental principles . of the Islamic
religion" are prohibited.

Articles 320 and 322 concerning "crimes affecting religious doctrines
and rites" stipulate that possession of propaganda for any faith outside
Islam is punishable by a minimum of one year imprisonment and a 1,000
dirhams ($278) fine, "provided that such [materials] are prepared for
distribution or to be read by others."

Although Islam has a privileged status under UAE laws, a relatively
tolerant atmosphere has allowed the establishment of numerous Christian
churches for its large expatriate population. A wealthy federation of
seven former sheikdoms at the southeast tip of the Saudi peninsula, the
UAE has a population of 3.1 million, and 80 percent are non-citizens.
All UAE citizens are Muslim.

Return to Project Open Book