By Aidan Clay
5/17/2013 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – A Christian schoolteacher detained for allegedly insulting Islam was released on bail by an Egyptian court on Tuesday. The case follows the arrests of dozens of Christians for blasphemy after Egypt’s 2011 revolution and adds to concerns that Islamists are using their newly gained power to stifle freedom of expression.
Dimyana Obeid Abd Al-Nour, a 23-year-old elementary schoolteacher in Al-Edisat, located in Luxor Province, was arrested on May 8 after three students complained that she made blasphemous comments in the classroom, Morning Star News reports. On May 9, a judge ordered that Al-Nour be held in prison for four days pending the outcome of an investigation by the general prosecutor’s office. According to Morning Star News, Al-Nour’s incarceration was extended an additional 15 days on May 11, but Al-Nour reportedly paid 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,870) on Tuesday to be released while the investigation takes place.
Amnesty International, an organization that has closely monitored Egypt’s crackdown on free speech following President Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power, was quick to condemn Al-Nour’s arrest. “It is outrageous that a teacher finds herself behind bars for teaching a class. If she made some professional mistake, or deviated from the school curriculum, an internal review should have sufficed,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International. “The authorities must release… Al-Nour immediately and drop these spurious charges against her.”
Spilling Oil on Fire
A similar incident occurred last year when Bishoy Kamel, a Christian teacher in Sohag, was sentenced to six years in prison for posting cartoons on Facebook that allegedly insulted the Muslim prophet Mohammed and President Morsi. Hard-line Islamist groups, including Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya and Salafi sympathizers, threw stones at Kamel as he was escorted out of the courtroom, Ahram Online reported.
Children have also been detained for allegedly blaspheming Islam in Egypt. In September, Mina Nady Farag and Nabil Nagy Rizk, ages nine and ten, were sent to a juvenile detention center when Ibrahim Mohamed Ali, a local imam from their home village of Ezbet Marco in the Beni Suef province of Egypt, accused the children of tearing pages of a Quran.
“An apology [from the boys] is not acceptable,” Sheik Gamal Shamardal, a Muslim cleric and the local leader of Gamaa Islamiya, once Egypt's largest militant group, told The Associated Press. “This feels like it was arranged [by local Christians]. There was a lot of anger… It was like spilling oil on fire.”
Several other Christians were also arrested for blasphemy in Egypt last year, including Nevine al-Sayed, a teacher in Assiut who reportedly used the word “unfortunate,” which is similar to the word “poor” in Arabic, when describing Mohammad's upbringing. And Gamal Abdou Massoud, 17, who was convicted by an Egyptian court in April 2012 for posting cartoons on Facebook deemed offensive to Muslims in Assiut. The cartoons led to violent Muslim protests in neighboring villages that resulted in the torching of several Christian houses. Massoud was initially sentenced to three years in prison, but he has since been acquitted.
Christians Disproportionately Targeted
A survey conducted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights found that 41 percent of blasphemy cases taken to court from January 25, 2011 to December 31, 2012 were filed against Christians, who comprise only 10 percent of Egypt’s population, Morning Star news reports. Of the 63 cases filed during that time period, only one case was brought against someone for blaspheming Christianity when Sheik Abu Islam was charged for publicly burning a Bible in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. The charges filed against Islam have since been dismissed.
“Blasphemy law proponents claim that they seek religious harmony through uniformity, but crushing the fundamental freedoms of religion and nonviolent expression will do nothing of the kind,” Zuhdi Jasser and Lantos Swett, commissioners at the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, wrote in Capitol Hill’s Congress Blog. “It won’t pacify violent religious extremists; it will embolden them to commit ever-more violent acts against perceived blasphemers.”
Egypt’s revolution, which hoped to instill democratic change and greater freedoms, has instead given unprecedented freedoms to Islamists—with the Muslim Brotherhood at the forefront—to impose their agenda on Egyptian society, activists claim.
“The battle, of course, is being waged by Islamists who want their interpretation of the religion to be declared as the only acceptable version,” said Barry Rubin, the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. “Westerners don't understand that when that happens anything more moderate or flexibly traditional hence becomes illegal and punishable. The Islamist counter-Bill of Rights proclaims that the country's people have no freedom of speech or freedom of religion, no right to free assembly or of the press.”