During the two-and-a-half years since the January 2011 Revolution, close to 40 cases against Copts accused of contempt of Islam were seen by the courts. The Copts were handed down prison sentences and/or steep fines. Such cases were almost non-existent before the Revolution. Today the charge of disdaining Islam requires no solid evidence to prove it, and is sure to bring about a harsh sentence
The Luxor Misdemeanours Court last week condemned the Coptic teacher Demiana Abdel-Nour, charged with contempt of Islam, to a fine of EGP100,000. Abdel-Nour had been accused by hardline Islamists in the Luxor village of Naj al-Sheikh Sultan of having made, while she taught her class a lesson on religions in Egypt, a gesture disdainful of Islam, and having said that she regarded the late Pope Shenouda III to be better than the Prophet Muhammad.
Abdel-Nour denied the charges, as did her supervisors at the school, and the majority of the pupils in her class. Only the parents of three pupils made the claim against her.
Appeasing the Islamists
The sentence came under fire by the Copts, who regarded it as an appeasement of radical Islamists, especially given that the court refused to summon for testimony the defence witnesses. Abdel-Nour’s lawyers said they would appeal the case.
Abdel-Nour comes form a family with very limited means, the fine sum of EGP100,000 for them is a fortune impossible to attain. Her bail of EGP10,000 was paid by money borrowed from one of Luxor’s wealthy Copts.
The human rights activist Safwat Samaan of the NGO Watan Bila Hudoud (Homeland Without Barriers) said the ruling against Abdel-Nour was the most recent in a prolonged series of cases that throttle Coptic rights in order to appease hardline Islamists. He said the refusal of the court to listen to the witnesses whose testimony would have proved Abdel-Nour’s innocence: the school principle, the head of the educational directorate, and the head of the school board of trustees; was evidence of the systematic discrimination against Copts. As has become customary, the Islamists in Luxor made a show of force every time the court was in session, mobilising huge numbers of them inside and outside the courthouse to cry for the “defence of Islam”.
Watani met Mustafa Mekki the principal of Naja Sheikh Sultan School, the school where Demiana Abdel-Nour was accused of deriding Islam. As we drove through the lush fields to the village where Mekki lives, the peaceful beauty that surrounded us made it difficult to believe such grating hostilities took place there.
We reached Mekki’s home, only to find he was getting ready to go to a wedding but, once we informed him of our mission, he graciously accepted to delay his errand and take the time to talk to Watani.
Mekki insisted there was absolutely no evidence to incriminate Abdel-Nour. “A number of fanatic parents forged the signatures of other parents on the official complaint,” he said. These fanatics, he said, are taking a strong stance against him for having spoken the truth in this case.
The official investigation, Mekki said, includes not a shred of evidence to support the allegations made against Abdel-Nour.
Testimonies do not match
The whole story began when he requested from the Education Ministry more teachers for his school, and Abdel-Nour was sent to fill in for a teacher who was on leave. She started at the beginning of April, shuttling between several schools. On 8 April she explained the lesson about religious life in Egypt and, by pure chance, the Social Studies inspector from the Education Ministry attended that lesson. “A parent later came to me to say that the Social Studies teacher spoke about the three religions and when she mentioned Islam she put her hand on her neck—a gesture that the father took to imply that she was about to throw up—then added that Pope Shenouda was better than the Prophet Muhammad.”
Mekki said he told the father he would directly investigate the matter, which he did. The stories of the children in that class did not match: the three children who said Abdel-Nour had made a gesture did not agree what gesture she made; nor did they agree on what derogatory remark they claimed she had uttered. Ten other children denied that the teacher had said anything of the sort, or made any gesture at all. All the other children in the class denied that anything was mentioned about the pope or the prophet.
The following day, Mekki said, he asked the Social Studies inspector to investigate the matter further with the children and also to dismiss Abdel-Nour and let her go back to the school she originally worked at. He took this measure, he said, in order to protect her, since he had discovered knives and sharp objects with the children whose parents had complained. While the inspector was investigating the matter, some Islamist teachers attempted to heap blame against Abdel-Nour but Mekki told them to stay away as they were in no way involved. “This gave rise to threats against me and against Abdel-Nour, with one teacher, Mohamed Zaky, swearing to ‘kill that woman not with a knife but with my bare hands’ ”.
Mekki said there was nothing in the entire investigation to incriminate Abdel-Nour but, obviously, the aim of the Islamists was to sow sedition. A complaint was submitted to the local authorities, signed by 13 parents and 13 teachers, some of whom later said they didn’t even know that their names had been signed to the complaint. Three of the signatories were not parents of children in the school. On 16 April a security officer came to school and an official investigation was held with the 13 teachers who had signed the complaint. The result was sent to the administrative prosecutor’s office along with the other investigations that had been made by the inspector and by Mekki.
The matter became worse, Mekki said, when a journalist got wind of a “hot story” here, and began to splash fictitious headlines that worked to make the case more explosive. He even used the names of the board of trustees of the school and got them involved. This also got the Islamist lawyers in Luxor involved and complicated matters more so that closing the issue in a friendly manner became impossible. “And now the Islamists besiege the courthouse and terrorise the prosecutor and the judges, threatening that no-one who allows ‘that woman’ to go free is a good Muslim,” he said.
Much worse, however, according to Mekki the educator and teacher for so many years, the issue does not stop at that. In bitter sadness and dismay, he deplored the long-term effects. “Can you imagine,” he said, “how this event can spoil relations between pupils and their teachers, and between Muslim and Christian pupils? This is something that won’t go away any time soon.”
Means to an end
Watani also met Father Sarapamon al-Shayeb of the Saints Monastery in al-Toud, Luxor, and the pastor of the church of which Abdel Nour is a member. Fr Sarapamoun believes that targeting Christians with charges of contempt of Islam has become part of the post-2011-Revolution general tide against Christians in Egypt, along with the burning of churches, abduction of girls, discrimination in workplaces, and many others. “It is as though there is a systematic plan targeting Copts, designed to intimidate and isolate them,” he said.
The case against Abdel-Nour is not a stand-alone stance; it is just one among many means to the end of Islamising education and gaining control over all the education institutions in the country. This, he insisted, is destroying all feelings of unity, companionship and family that were integral parts of the Egyptian community character regardless of religion.
14 June 2013