Blasphemy Charges Becoming New Weapon Against Egyptian Christians
Update (June 11): The Associated Press reports that an Egyptian court has convicted one female, Coptic Christian teacher of blasphemy. However, the judge opted not to hand down any prison sentence, only requiring that the woman pay a fine equivalent to US$14,000.
Update (May 22): The Christian Science Monitors offers more details on the rise in blasphemy cases.
According to a new study, blasphemy and evangelizing accusations are disproportionately used against members of Egypt's Christian minority–especially those working in education.
A study to be released at the end of this month by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) found that 41 percent of blasphemy cases taken to court from Jan. 25, 2011, to Dec. 31, 2012, were filed against Christians, who make up only about 10 percent of Egypt's population of 83 million people. Ishak Ibrahim, freedom of religion and belief officer for the EIPR, said people are targeting Christians using the nation's blasphemy statutes as a weapon.
The total of 36 blasphemy cases involved 63 people. The country's Sunni Muslim majority, which makes up almost 90 percent of the Egypt's population, were charged in 59 percent of the cases. Ibrahim noted that approximately 30 percent of the blasphemy cases filed have been filed against someone in an education environment.
Of the 36 blasphemy cases brought to court, only one case was filed against someone for blaspheming Christianity–in spite of a near-constant din of insults by the nation's religious leaders against Christians and Christianity on Egypt's television and radio airwaves. That single case, a blasphemy charge against Sheik Abu Islam for publically burning a Bible in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, was dismissed. A private Coptic attorney is trying to re-file the case.
Ibrahim also expects to see an increase in charges against Christians; the new constitution employs vague language that could prohibit evangelism, though evangelism is not specifically illegal. At the same time, the new constitution more explicitly criminalizes criticism of Islam.
"It is getting worse, with the change of the constitution, as there is a specific sentence that punishes those who insult Islam," he said.
Along with the disproportionate number of Christians charged with blasphemy, sentences are harsher for Christians compared with those handed to Muslims, EIPR noted. The study notes that the sentences are also unusually harsh in relation to the nature of the offenses.
The latest example is the case of social studies teacher Dimyana Obeid Abd Al-Nour, accused of making allegedly blasphemous comments while she was teaching on April 8 about Amenhotep IV, later known as Akhenaten, a pharaoh who introduced a form of monotheistic theology to ancient Egypt.
Accounts differ, but in some versions of the alleged incident, Al-Nour also made comparisons between the former head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the late Pope Shenouda III, and Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.
Three students from Sheikh Sultan Primary School, along with their parents and a handful of teachers, complained to the school administrator, and school officials contacted legal authorities. Al-Nour has been released from jail on bail, but faces trial.
Human rights group Amnesty International condemned the detention and demanded Al-Nour's release in a press statement.
"It is outrageous that a teacher finds herself behind bars for teaching a class," stated Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa program director at Amnesty International. "If she made some professional mistake or deviated from the school curriculum, an internal review should have sufficed. The authorities must release Dimyana Obeid Abd Al-Nour immediately and drop these spurious charges against her."