UAE Formally Deports Filipino Pastor

Thursday, August 7, 2003

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.