United Arab Emirates

UAE Formally Deports Filipino Pastor
Rev. Alconga Jailed for Final Four Days

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, August 7 (Compass) -- Following lengthy judicial delays, the United
Arab Emirates allowed Rev. Fernando P. Alconga to be deported back to Manila on
July 23, more than nine months after he was arrested in Dubai for illegal
Christian activities.

"We have a smile on our lips and tears on our cheeks, just to be here," Alconga
told Compass by telephone from Manila today. The Filipino pastor said he, his
wife and son were met on the tarmac at the Manila airport by an entourage of
officials, including a representative from the presidential palace and a TV
camera crew.

After the humiliation of being re-arrested for four days and subjected to a
formal deportation, Alconga said he felt "vindicated and honored" upon his
arrival in the Philippines.

A Filipino pastor living with his family in the UAE since 1994, Alconga was
arrested at a Dubai shopping center last November. After 36 days in jail, he
was released on bail and put on trial for "preaching other than the Muslim
religion" by giving an Arab Muslim a Bible and other Christian materials.

Although Alconga was found guilty of the charges in a criminal court verdict on
April 27, the presiding judge suspended his one-year prison sentence. A month
later, the court accepted his lawyer's appeal to cancel his deportation order.
But the case bounced back to the Supreme Court in June when the Dubai
Prosecutor General filed an objection.

After two postponements, the Supreme Court issued a final ruling on July 12,
accepting the prosecutor's petition to reinstate the original deportation
sentence. Alconga's legal counsel was advised that his client's "procedural"
arrest and detention preceding the actual deportation would be waived. But when
the pastor reported to the court on July 19 for his formal sentencing, he was
put under arrest until his actual deportation four days later.

"They told me this detention was voluntary," Alconga said, "but if I did not
submit myself to it, my departure would be delayed even further."  Alconga said
he was fingerprinted, photographed, given an iris scan, issued a formal
deportation card, and then obliged to wear striped prison garb during his four
days in a cell at Dubai's Central Jail.

But he was allowed a string of visitors, including his lawyer, representatives
of the Philippines Embassy and even the Philippines Consul himself, who came
from faraway Abu Dhabi to visit him, he said.

"But the good thing there was that the prisoners of Christian background were
being allowed to have fellowship inside the jail," Alconga remarked. "So when
they learned that I was a pastor, they asked me to lead them." After one such
meeting, he talked until midnight with a prisoner who asked to hear more. "At
the end, he prayed to receive the Lord Jesus Christ with me," Alconga said.

Alconga, 54, said he wore his clerical collar to the airport. He was never
handcuffed, and his police escorts treated him very politely. Representatives
of the Philippines Embassy met with him during the early morning departure
procedures at the airport, where he was joined by his wife and son to board the
flight back to Manila.

"I finally had a reunion with my passport at the airport," Alconga joked,
noting that it had been held by UAE authorities since his arrest.  Although
some officials had implied that Alconga would be under a lifetime ban against
returning to the UAE, he said his passport was stamped with an official
"Deportation" notice, stating that he could not enter UAE for one year.

Alconga said he believed that his arrest and trial in the UAE, which is
considered one of the more tolerant Muslim states in the Arab Gulf, had unified
the local Christian community and also enhanced the understanding and prayers
of Christians around the world for the Arabian peninsula.

"Since I've arrived home," Alconga said, "I've seen that Filipinos are more
aware of the difficulties of Christians in the Middle East. And they also
appreciate their freedoms, in being more intentional in their spread of the
gospel here."

An ordained Conservative Baptist minister called "Pastor Nanding" by his
congregation, Alconga takes up his duties this month pastoring the Fairview
Christian Fellowship in the Quezon City suburb of Manila.

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