Islamists Press Blasphemy Cases in a New Egypt

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DEIR EL GABRAWI, Egypt -- Egypt's prosecutors have been flooded with blasphemy complaints since 2011 as Islamists exercising their new societal clout have pushed for prosecutions and courts have handed down steep fines and prison terms for insulting religion.

This month alone, a Christian teacher in Luxor was fined $14,000 for insulting the Prophet Muhammad in class, a writer was given five years in prison for promoting atheism and a Christian lawyer was sentenced to one year for insulting Islam -- in a private conversation.

Blasphemy cases were once rare in Egypt, and their frequency has increased sharply since the revolution. More than two dozen cases have gone to trial, and nearly all defendants have been found guilty. At least 13 have received prison sentences.

The campaign is driven at the local level, where religious activists have also forced officials to suspend teachers and professors. In at least 10 cases, Christian families have been expelled from their homes after perceived insults, according to Ishaq Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Blasphemy complaints have been lodged across the society, against poor teachers in villages, a deputy prime minister, Egypt's richest man, and some of its most prominent writers and journalists. A firebrand Muslim preacher who tore up a Bible at a protest was sentenced to 11 years in prison. His son received eight years on similar charges.

"Contempt of religion, any religion, is a crime, not a form of expression," said Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has not been instrumental in filing the cases but does not oppose them. "Is setting fire to the Bible freedom of expression? Is insulting religion freedom of expression?" He attributed the rise in cases to abuse of the "unprecedented freedom of expression" since the revolution.

The increase in blasphemy lawsuits reflects how profoundly the old order has been upset since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted. Under Mr. Mubarak, the security services often dealt with Islamists and other dissidents outside of the courts. Blasphemy prosecutions were rare and usually aimed at prominent intellectuals.

Mr. Mubarak's overthrow in 2011 removed those constraints and allowed for deeply conservative currents in Egyptian society to assert themselves in public life. On the local level, Islamist groups now face few restrictions from weakened state institutions, and the vagueness of laws banning contempt of religion allows for wide interpretations.

Most blasphemy cases have been directed against Egypt's Christian minority and filed by ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis. Many lack clear evidence.

Last July, a Christian teacher, Beshoy Kamel from Sohag in central Egypt, heard that someone had created a Facebook page using his name and photograph and was posting messages insulting Islam and President Mohamed Morsi, his family said.

Mr. Kamel told the police about the page, his family said, and posted a warning that still stands on his personal page that the other account was not his.

But when a local Salafi received a private message from the account insulting him and his religion, he filed a complaint against Mr. Kamel, who was arrested soon afterward. Local Islamists heard about the case and spread copies of the texts from the insulting page, causing protests that twice forced the police to delay hearings.

The day the trial opened, Mr. Kamel was sentenced to six years in prison: three for contempt of religion, two for insulting the president and one for slander, court documents say.

Islamists protested outside the court, and a video shows them rushing to attack Mr. Kamel as the police led him outside.

Mr. Kamel's family now worries that any perceived infraction could lead to prosecution.

"There was none of that before the revolution," said Mr. Kamel's father, Kameel. "The Salafis started to breathe after the revolution, and some of them are taking advantage of the situation."

Court documents show that prosecutors never tried to prove that Mr. Kamel had administered the insulting page, which has since been removed but whose contents were quoted in case files. Egypt's Interior Ministry filed a report saying it could not determine the page's owner.

That made no difference to Salah Khanous, a Salafi lawyer involved in the case, who said there was a "systematic campaign" among Egypt's Christians to insult Islam.

"They should have cut his throat for it," Mr. Khanous said.

Other cases, too, did not reach the courts until the Islamists mobilized. The ordeal of Makarim Saeed, a school secretary in Deir El Gabrawi, a poor Christian farming village in central Egypt, started in February 2012 with a conversation with two Muslim teachers and within earshot of the Christian principal.

According to court documents, all four, including Mr. Saeed, testified that he said he had denigrated the Prophet Muhammad.

But for two weeks after the conversation, no charges were filed, and Mr. Saeed continued to work alongside his Muslim colleagues, his family said.

Then word of the conversation reached another teacher who belonged to the Salafi Call, an ultraconservative group, whose members went to the police.

Mr. Saeed was arrested that night. Six days later, as hundreds of Islamists protested outside, he was sentenced to six years in prison. Chants of "God is great!" echoed in the courtroom.

A local spokesman for the Salafi Call, Mohammed Arafat, said Islamists could not press such cases before the revolution because of the security apparatus. "Before the revolution, if two guys with beards walked in the street together, that was a terrorist organization," he said.

He saw the case as a legal matter, saying Mr. Saeed had broken the law and probably would have been killed by local Muslims had he not been arrested. "When the issue touches the prophet, our beliefs, our religion or the Koran, a Muslim will go out to get justice or die," Mr. Arafat said.

In a written response to a request for comment, Mr. Morsi's office said it did not comment on judicial rulings. It said the "freedom to litigate" had been one of the revolution's benefits, but hinted at the need for reform.

Mr. Saeed's family does not know what he said in school that day, but guessed that he had been joking or asking a question. His family doubts he meant harm. His brother Wafdi said that Mr. Saeed had worked alongside Muslims for three decades, but that since the revolution, relations between Muslims and Christians had changed.

"It used to be that if you had a fight with a Muslim, you would reconcile with the help of a sheik or a priest," he said. "But now if there is a conflict, they use the law against us."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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