By Coptic Solidarity –
The Egyptian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and criminalizes discrimination based on religion. Yet, the second article of the Constitution states that “Islam is the religion of the state and the principles of Islamic shari’a are the main sources of legislation.” These statements are antithetical since shari’a repudiates religious freedom and is founded on the non-equality between a Believer (a Muslim) and a Non-believer (and also between men and women), it actually proscribes discrimination and persecution of minority faiths. The Egyptian government cannot implement contradictory principles. Since all the constitutional articles are to be interpreted in light of and in submission to Article 2, shari’a always takes precedence and is the basis for the existence and use of blasphemy laws in Egypt.
There is no apostasy law, per se, in the Egyptian judiciary system, but, as a matter of fact, it is prohibited for anyone wishing to convert away from Islam. Conversion to Islam is always accepted. This is based in shari’a law. The court considers that a person choosing to convert to Islam has accepted all its tenets (including giving up their right to convert away from it, because they know it is prohibited in Islam.) This does nothing to address those who are born into Muslim families and never made a choice to become Muslim and give up their right to convert.
Apostasy ‘rules’ are primarily enforced through the Civil Status Department. Government officials refuse to change a convert’s religion on their ID card to reflect their conversion to anything but Islam. At times, converts have been accused of derision of Islam for their conversion. In this way, the individual, and any family will continue to be subject to shari’a law in areas of education, marriage, custody, and inheritance. A convert away from Islam who persists in their conversion will lose their spouse, children, and inheritance. When security forces become aware of converts leaving Islam, they routinely torture, arrest, and bribe the converts to return to Islam. Egyptian society also retaliates by treating these converts with hostility, disrespect, exclusion, and at times killing them as prescribed by shari’a law. In the cases of honor killings, Egyptian security forces find the murder acceptable and do not prosecute the perpetrator.
The cases of Christians who converted to Islam but shortly afterward wanted to ‘convert back’ are sometimes treated differently. Over the past decade or so, courts would allow these ‘returnees,’ after thorough investigation and extensive paperwork.
Article 98(f) of the Egyptian Penal Code penalizes “derision or denigration of the heavenly religions,” which are Islam, Judaism, and Christianity and was enacted in 1981. Blasphemy provisions in the law (referred to hereunder as blasphemy laws) are primarily used by the Egyptian authorities and al-Azhar to ensure conformity amongst Muslims to their views, to punish or neutralize members of minority faiths, and lastly to discourage conversion away from Islam. The punishment for blasphemy carries prison sentences of between six months to five years and fines.
While Blasphemy laws were applied under Mubark’s rule, their use increased under Morsi, and continued to increase in use under el-Sisi. According to Eshhad, 36 blasphemy cases were filed in 2011 and of those, 35 were for blaspheming Islam. The one case filed for blaspheming Christianity was dismissed. A study by EIPR found that 41% of all blasphemy cases brought between January 25, 2011 – December 31, 2012 were against Christians, and sentences against Christians were harsher. Both the annual State Department report and US Commission on International Religious Freedom reports have described the abuse of these laws and how they are used disproportionately against Christians on spurious charges.
Due to the 1996 Hisba law, a third party is permitted to sue any citizen or entity if it is deemed to be in the public interest. This law is utilized by attorneys and extremists to target Christians and members of other minority faith groups. Often, collective punishment is exacted by mobs after a mere accusation of blasphemy has been made. Many Copts have been displaced from their villages due to such incidents of violence, mob rule, and through the use of reconciliation sessions in which Copts give up the right to press charges against their Muslim attackers in order to secure release of Copts unfairly arrested during these incidents. Security services regularly do not protect Copts during attacks and the judicial system gives attackers impunity.
Moreover, the ‘Islamic Research Center’ of al-Azhar has the authority to censor and confiscate any publications, speeches, recordings, or art deemed inconsistent with their views on Islam and their interpretation of Islamic law. In 2015, al-Azhar officials outlawed a book titled Blasphemy in Egypt and threatened Cairo book sellers with charges of blasphemy if they refused to cooperate.
Researcher, author, speaker, and Coptic Solidarity Executive Committee Member, Mr. Magdi Khalil, believes Egypt follows only Pakistan in the number and harsh implementation of blasphemy cases. This is in part achieved through the full cooperation of governmental institutions and Al- Azhar. The concept of blasphemy has become deeply rooted in Egyptian society within the last 50 years.
Mr. Khalil has compiled a list of more than 100 cases which mostly occurred in the last decade. These cases have been recorded in Arabic and can be viewed here.
Below is a sampling of individuals victimized by the use of blasphemy laws in Egypt. Through these individual cases, one can understand how they impact Egyptians on a daily basis and how utilizing them contradicts Egypt’s claims of allowing freedom of religion and freedom of worship.
- In July 2018, Abdo Adel, a 43-year old from Menbal village, was accused of “insulting Mohammed” and of “contempt of religion” through posts on his Facebook page. Despite being arrested, a large Muslim mob proceeded to attack Coptic homes and St. Tadros Church. Abdo was sentenced to three years. The 90 Muslim attackers who had been arrested were released after a “reconciliation session” was held.
- In February 2015, Michael Mounir was arrested and eventually charged with “contempt for religion” after being accused of sharing a video that insulted the prophet Mohammed. He was sentenced to one year and a fine. His sentence was reduced to six months after an appeal.
- In May 2015, four Coptic students made a 32 second video, filmed by their Christian teacher, intended to criticize ISIS terrorists following multiple attacks on Coptic churches. They were arrested for blasphemy, and in 2016, three of the students were given the maximum sentence of five years for blasphemy, and the last student sentenced to a juvenile institution. The teacher was sentenced to three years for filming their video. Fortunately, the four students managed to escape Egypt (during the trial period, when they were out of detention) and gain asylum in Switzerland.
- In September 2015, Maher Fayez, an 18-year-old student, was imprisoned for three months without trial. He was accused of blasphemy for comments he wrote on Facebook that “insulted Islam.”
- In 2014, Demiana Emad, a Christian social studies teacher in Luxor was sentenced to six months and fined 100,000 Egyptian pounds for insulting Islam based on the complaint of one student’s parent. Ms. Emad’s students who were interviewed verified her response that she said nothing wrong while she was teaching a comparison between religions in ancient, middle and modern ages.
- In May 2014, Kirollos Shawki Atallah of Armant Luxor was sentenced to six years based on an accusation that he shared and ‘liked’ another page that showed contempt to Islam on his Facebook page titled “Knights of the Cross.”
- In 2012, Albert Saber Talib was sentenced to three years with hard labor in case 18377. He was charged with sharing a link on his Facebook page to a movie deemed offensive (criticizing an Islamic channel for affronting atheism). He was also expelled and was tortured in custody.
- On November 11, 2019, Dr. Khaled Montaser, a renowned writer, had a lawsuit filed against him by attorney Ayman Mahfouz for showing disdain to Islam and defaming deceased cleric Mohamed Metwaly al-Shaarawi who is known to have helped radicalize Egyptian society through his weekly show “Religion and Life.” He was not imprisoned, but still faces social threats from fanatics.
- In 2016, writer Ahmed Nagy was sentenced to 2 years for publishing an excerpt from one of his novels in a magazine. Even though it did not criticize Islam, his crime was “offending public morals.”
- In 2015, Islam al-Beheiry was accused of blasphemy because he “made people question what is certain in religion” by his critiques of certain parts of Islamic Hadith books and sentenced to one year. He is an Islamic studies researcher and TV anchor. President el-Sisi pardoned him after serving a portion of his sentence, but the threat to conform in thought and speech was made.
- Shahira Muhammad Ahmad Suleiman was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment in February 2014. She was charged with promoting ideas such as that women’s bodies are not salacious needing covering, as well that it is acceptable to eat in public (breaking the fast) during Ramadan.
- Mona Prince was a professor of English Literature at the University of the Suez Canal She was charged with insulting Islam, attacking elders and joining the Baha’i community. This occurred against the background of a discussion that affected Copts entitled “Are We Racists?” held on April 19, 2013. Her penalty was a referral for investigation, suspension from work, forcible removal from her lecturing position, and an administrative penalty. She was also accused of “striking” before traveling abroad on a foreign scholarship.
- In December 2014, Egyptian authorities targeted a café in Beheira governorate, known to be popular with suspected atheists. Karim Ashraf Mohamed al-Banna was arrested and a local newspaper identified him as an atheist. His own father testified against him for “embracing extremist ideas against Islam.” Al- Banna was sentenced to 3 years.
- In 2013, Sherif Gaber Abdel Azim was charged with the “crime” of atheism in case 1523. He was a student at the University of the Suez Canal. The case is still pending before the Ismaili Misdemeanor Court and Gaber’s whereabouts are unknown.
Photo Credit: The mothers of two of four Coptic Christian teens convicted for contempt of Islam, in Bani Mazar, Egypt. Photo Thomas Hartwell ©Hollandse Hoogte ⁃ Thomas Hartwell