It is not for a shortage of reasons that Copts in Egypt are victims of attacks by fanatic Muslims. Even if the most notorious is their building a church or a community centre, there exists a plethora of grievances from which Copts suffer on account of their being Christian and for which they face outright discrimination and, frequently, assault. Especially in rural areas, personal disputes may escalate into fights that involve the entire Muslim and Coptic communities in villages and, Copts being more often than not peaceful and non-aggressive, end up incurring the worst damages. Watani has for years reported on such incidents. Something as personal as a romance between a Muslim woman and a Christian man has in countless cases been reason for a spree of torching and looting of the homes of all the Christians in a given village.
One specific reason for attacks against Copts—namely contempt of religion, in this case of Islam—has been gaining momentum since the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011 and the consequent rise of Islamist culture and power. Even though the 33-million-strong revolution of 30 June 2013 by the Egyptian people, and the consequent intervention by the military in favour of public will brought an end to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime, fundamentalist thought and fanaticism still linger especially in rural areas where education is minimal.
The village of Nassriya in Beni-Mazar, Minya, Upper Egypt has been the scene of the most recent violence against Copts on account of their alleged contempt of Islam. The 26-year-old Gad Younan was accused of shooting a 30-second video clip—some claim he posted it on his Facebook page—of five Coptic youngsters who were sarcastically performing a depiction of the IS beheading of the 20 Copts in Libya last February. When Mr Younan passed them and asked what they were doing they answered that they were “praying”. Mr Younan laughed and said: “Gamaan”, a term usually said to a Muslim when he completes his prayers, and filmed the scene. The young Copts were apparently sarcastic of views that IS savagery is based upon true Islamic teachings.
Mr Younan had the video on the memory card of his mobile phone, but he lost that card and it was later found by the village Muslims. They claimed it was insulting to Islam and decided the Copts must be punished for it.
On Tuesday 7 April the Muslims filed a complaint with the police against Mr Younan and the young Copts, all of whom were underage secondary school students. The police caught Mr Younan, but the village Muslims waged demonstrations that screamed insults against Christians and Christianity and pelted the Copts’ homes with stones, knocking threateningly on their doors and windows, and terrorising the Copts who felt that even inside their homes there was no safety.
The village Muslim elders intervened and calmed the situation, and the police tried to maintain control, especially seeing it was Coptic Holy Week; Easter Sunday was 12 April.
The violence escalated following the Muslim Friday noon prayers. A Coptic-owned photo studio, pharmacy and several homes were damaged.
Living in fear
The families of the five Coptic students were forced to hand them over to the police and had to leave the village for fear of their lives; the village Muslims demanded the six Coptic families should leave the village for good, a demand rejected by all the village Copts.
Yet the Copts lived in fear; many of them could not leave their homes or send their children to school. Schools administrations asked the Coptic students to stay home for their own safety. Even though the security forces have guarded the village churches against any attack, the Copts are angry that the police did not catch any of the Muslim attackers and only caught the Coptic ‘offenders’. Investigations are ongoing, and the harassment and attacks against Copts have not stopped.
According to Ishaq Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a rights group, cases of deriding Islam have risen drastically following the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011. Defendants do not usually get fair trials since the penal code is not well-defined on such charges, Ibrahim says, and also because the fundamentalists terrorise the judges and the courts.
Lawyers admit that accusing Christians of religious contempt on the basis of weak evidence has become commonplace, revealing a serious flaw in Egyptian society and exhibiting a flagrant breach of international law and international human rights treaties.
Whereas many Copts have been indicted on charges of religious contempt, the only Islamist who was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for deriding Christianity was Sheikh Abu-Islam, a Salafi who tore up and burnt a copy of the Bible while participating in a demonstration in front of the US embassy in Cairo in 2012 to protest against the US-produced film The Innocence of Muslims. The film was seen by Muslims as insulting to Islam.
According to the EIPR, some 48 individuals accused of religious contempt were prosecuted during the period from January 2011 to the end of 2013. Some of these cases were punished informally by forcing the families concerned to leave their hometown or pay fines, while 28 were taken to court. Whereas there are no figures for 2014, the first three months of 2015 saw nine cases of contempt of religion prosecuted and two taken to court.
Relations back to normal
Milad Ayad Salib, the brother of Nour Ayad, from Ezbet Shaker in Matai, Minya, Upper Egypt, told Watani that in October 2011 his brother was accused of posting a picture that allegedly defamed Islam on his Facebook page.
“Many of the villagers assembled and demanded that he and his family leave the village,” Milad Salib said. “The following day, they came back and broke the doors and windows of our house, forcing the entire family to flee the village. My brother Nour turned himself in to Minya security headquarters, and was kept under arrest until his release on orders of the general prosecutor of Minya. The family returned to the village in October 2013. The case was dismissed and we are now living peacefully by the Grace of God and thanks to the mediation of police officers. Although my brother hasn’t returned, all the [extended] family members are back in their homes.”
The case of Bishoi Kamel, however, gained wider proportions. “Someone created a Facebook page in the name of my son Bishoi, and posted on it defamatory material,” the father Kamil Kamel told us. “When Bishoi discovered the page, he called the police and reported it. However, because of the tense situation in Egypt at that time under MB rule, a lawsuit was filed against him and he was detained and referred to the prosecutor’s office, and it gradually turned into a case of public opinion. Although we presented evidence that proved Bishoi was innocent, he was sentenced to six years in prison. We appealed against the sentence, but my son is still detained.” The family’s relations with their neighbours and community, Mr Kamel said, is almost back to normal.
Mona Brens, professor of English literature at Suez Canal University, was suspended from work and interrogated on allegations of contempt of Islam. A number of students organised a protest on 16 April 2013 objecting to a lecture Dr Brens had given and which they considered insulting to Islam. They accused her of converting to Baha’ism. Dr Brens denied both accusations and gave an assurance that all she had done was discuss the issue of sectarian sedition in Egypt from different perspectives.
Rifaat al-Saeed, former president of the leftist Tagammu Party, sees that Copts are accused of contempt of religion because the values are frequently twisted. “Some people see Islam as the only true religion and its followers the only righteous people.”
Hamdy al-Assiuty, a lawyer at the Court of Cassation, says religious contempt is not a well-defined term and can be interpreted in many ways. “In general, people are accused of contempt of religion without clear evidence, and interrogations usually turn into an inspection of the accused’s conscience rather than a real legal questioning,” he says. In case of Albeir Saber, an Egyptian blogger accused of sharing an anti-Islam film on his Facebook page, Mr Assiuty says that Mr Saber was treated very harshly by the authorities after his arrest. Some of the evidence presented against him came from Internet pages which did not belong to him. The evidence that came from his apartment was presented three days after his arrest. During that time Mr Saber’s mother was forced to flee the apartment, leaving it unlocked, and therefore anyone could have placed documents or CDs to be used as evidence against him. Mr Saber’s lawyer after his arrest had to leave the interrogation because he objected to questions about Saber’s conscience and whether or not he believed in God. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
Mr Ibrahim of the EIPR says that religious contempt accusations are sometimes used to achieve political, social, economic or electoral purposes. It complicates matters that State apparatuses lose their impartiality when it comes to dealing with religion. Even though the penal code does not discriminate between religions, what happens in real life reveals the extent to which discrimination according to religion is rooted in Egyptian society.
Collective punishment is also applied to anyone in relation with a person accused of defamation of religion. The usual pattern shows that once a person is accused of defamation, either for an action actually committed or based on a rumour, the community rushes to punish him. If the person is a civil servant he is suspended from work; if he is not, he and his property are attacked. The accused is usually forcefully displaced from his hometown according to an informal decision by the local community, a decision of the security apparatus or his personal decision in fear for himself and his family.
Mr Ibrahim also points out that Islamists attempt to influence court trials by massing and organising demonstrations outside and sometimes inside the courts. These practices compromise the rights of the accused to a fair trial and terrorise the judges, resulting in harsh sentences that exceed the severity of the crimes.
Those concerned with human rights are unanimous about the need to amend current laws that restrict religious freedom. They also demand that cases of contempt of religion should be seen in Cairo courthouses to spare the judges the popular pressure put on them in Upper Egypt.
Wider view of religious freedom
Watani also talked to Ahmed Ezzat, a lawyer with the Organisation for the Freedom of Thought and Expression, about his organisation’s report “Talk Trials”, which also discusses contempt of religion. Dr Ezzat says that speaking about other religions was a main component of freedom of speech; it must not be considered a crime unless it involves hate speech. He says that provisions of the Egyptian law go as far as to punish someone for his or her unspoken intents, personal beliefs and convictions. The law incriminates defamation in its absolute form, whereas it should only be incriminated if it involves inciting violence or if it violates people’s rights and constitutes a threat to society. The new Egyptian Constitution provides for the freedom of belief, but constricts it to the practice of religious rituals. This freedom is therefore incomplete because freedom of belief must extend to include freedom to discuss different beliefs.
15 April 2015