Happenings, News

Egypt kidnap drama, pilgrim’s fall strengthen group’s faith and ties

TWO UNEXPECTED EVENTS which occurred during a recent two-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land have strengthened the faith of 22 members of Queenstown Chinese Methodist Church and bonded them even closer.

Mdm Koh Yock Kim, a member of the group, said: “We believe strongly that God would only allow things He deems best to happen to us.”

The pilgrims left for Jordan, Israel and Egypt on June 3, 2012. On June 12, Mdm Loo Guat Hoon fell in Jerusalem and a hospital check confirmed that she had broken three bones in her right arm. She and her husband flew back that evening to Singapore where she was operated on successfully, but not before the entire group had prayed for her in her hotel room.

The group continued with their journey in Israel with peace in their hearts, knowing that Mdm Loo was making good recovery back home.

And then, out of the blue they encountered the second event on June 15 – a life-threatening one.

As they travelled from Sinai to Cairo on the final leg of their journey, their coach was forced to a stop at about 5 pm (Singapore time 10 pm) in the middle of the desert by two pick-up trucks with flashing headlights. In the pick-ups were men carrying guns, including a machine gun.

Mdm Koh, a retired Chinese school teacher, told Methodist Message through an interpreter, Mr Joshua Chua Hong-En, who was with the pilgrim group: “I saw an armed Bedouin come up our bus. He walked towards our tour leader, Mr Vincent Toh, and demanded that he get off the bus.

“Mr Toh refused and retreated down the aisle of the bus. The Bedouin man then walked towards me – I was sitting on the second row – and caught hold of my hand. I thought he wanted my handbag. I held on to it tightly and refused to get off the bus. He then turned towards my husband, Tien Ghun, who was sitting on the other side of the aisle. He too refused to get off the bus.”

For the safety of everybody on the bus, Mr Toh, who works with Christian Communications Singapore, an outreach organisation, volunteered to follow the Bedouins. As he got off the bus, the armed men threw a few punches at him and forcefully pushed him into one of their pick-ups and sped off.

Said Mdm Koh: “All of us on board the bus were very frightened. We asked the security officer on the bus why he did not lend a helping hand throughout the incident. The local tour guide told us to keep our calm and cool. The only thing we could do was to pray to God to watch over our safety.”

Mdm Koh said “we knew something was amiss when we saw the local tour guide, security officer and the bus driver making countless calls to the local police and army personnel”.

Thereafter, they found out that the Bedouins were not interested in money but wanted a hostage in exchange for one of their people who had been arrested for possessing drugs.

“During this anxious moment, the only thing we could do was to pray faithfully, that the Lord will grant Mr Toh peace and safety and bring him back safely to us,” said Mdm Koh.

Meanwhile, someone on the coach contacted the Singapore Foreign Affairs Ministry, which then informed the Egypt Foreign Affairs Ministry as well as the Singapore Embassy in Egypt. A representative from the Singapore Embassy in Egypt maintained contact with the group and told the group members that there would be a staff member who would be waiting for them at their hotel in Cairo.

The coach moved on and the pilgrims continued to pray. After passing through a tunnel in the Suez Canal they stopped for a rest.

After a two-hour wait, there was still no news of Mr Toh. The coach left and an hour later, they arrived at their hotel in Cairo. They were met by a representative from the Singapore Embassy to Egypt as well as a local woman tour guide.

Said Mdm Koh: “We had our dinner at about 9 pm and we were told that Mr Toh would be released soon. At 11 pm, all of us gathered in the room of the Rev Chng Siew Sin, one of our group members and a pastor of our church, to pray for Mr Toh’s safety as well as to get a consensus that we would cancel our trip to the Great Pyramid the following day.

“When I switched on my mobile phone on July 16 (Saturday) at 3 am local time, I saw an SMS from the Rev Goh Aik Hiang, our Pastor-in-Charge, stating that ‘he was praying for us and our tour leader’. He told me that ‘Mr Toh has already been released’.

“I told him what had happened and he sent another SMS saying ‘whatever happens, be united and be of one spirit and put yourselves in God’s hands. The important thing is for everyone to arrive back in Singapore safely.’ ”

At about 10 am, the Egyptian tour guide told the group that the representatives from the Singapore Embassy to Egypt would bring Mr Toh back to the hotel at 1 pm.

After lunch, the pilgrims stopped by to visit the Abu Serga Church, the place where Jesus rested at the end of his journey to Egypt, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue.

When they arrived back at their hotel, they saw Mr Toh and the Singapore Ambassador to Egypt, Mr Tan Hung Seng.

“We were on Cloud Nine and thanked the Lord for allowing Mr Toh to travel back to Singapore with us,” said Mdm Koh.

On the bus to the airport, Mr Toh shared with them his ordeal. He said that when the incident took place, he was afraid that the kidnappers would open fire at the group. Thus, he volunteered to be the hostage. As he tried to resist when the kidnappers grabbed hold of him, he received a few punches.

They tied his hands and legs with a rope, masked his face and threw him into a pick-up, driving him to an area of the desert in Mount Sinai. Along the way, the kidnappers did not harm him in any way. They even gave him a blanket when the weather turned cold, brewed tea and shared a meal with him.

After that, they continued on their journey. However, the situation became tense when it was time for the exchange of hostages and one of the Bedouins pointed his General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) at his head.

With the assistance of the Egyptian police, Mr Toh was released unharmed eight hours later. This was the quickest release of a hostage.

Said Mdm Koh: “I would like to thank the Lord that this journey to the Holy Land resulted in a renewal in our spiritual lives. Through this ‘unique’ journey, I saw the guidance and protection that the Lord provided, as well as the fervent prayers of our brothers and sisters-in-Christ, that enabled us to return home safely. May all glory be onto God! Amen!”

Peter Teo is the Editor of Methodist Message.