The blasphemy trail against a Christian teacher who is accused by three of her students for “insulting Islam,” has come to characterize the new wave of blasphemy charges being brought against Christians living in Egypt. Since the Muslims Brotherhood came to power in Egypt’s last election, the number of blasphemy cases has risen dramatically. Many Christians fear this trend is likely to become the norm.
5/23/2013 Egypt (Christian Science Monitor) – A blasphemy trial against a Christian teacher in this Egyptian city renowned for its Pharaonic monuments is among a wave of cases that have Egyptian Christians worried they can be jailed for insulting Islam on the flimsiest of evidence.
Dozens of lawyers crowded a small, hot courtroom yesterday, eager to participate in the case against Dimyana Abdel Nour, a primary school teacher from a village near Luxor. Three students accused her of insulting Islam while teaching a social studies class last month. Such blasphemy cases have become much more frequent since the 2011 uprising that brought Islamists to power in Egypt.
Ms. Abdel Nour is now in hiding, and did not attend the court hearing. Her lawyers and local activists say the case is unjust, and local Christians are watching the proceedings with worry. They say the Islamists’ rise to power, including the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, has encouraged extremists to discriminate against Egyptian Christians, known as Copts, who make up around 10 percent of the population.
To them, Abdel Nour’s case is an example of an increasingly grim reality.
“This case is not just about Dimyana,” says Archbishop Sarabamon El Shayeb, head of the monastery in Abdel Nour’s village. “It’s about organized repression of the Copts. The Islamists are giving out the accusations of blasphemy generously and openly, mostly against Christians.”
Blasphemy cases occurred under former president Hosni Mubarak too, but they have increased since the uprising that toppled him. Egypt’s new constitution, drafted last year by an Islamist-led committee, criminalizes blasphemy, bolstering a pre-existing law against insulting religions. Rights groups say blasphemy laws restrict freedom of expression and are often used against minorities, but most Egyptians support such laws.
From 2011 to 2012, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) tallied 36 accusations of blasphemy that were dealt with extra-legally, sometimes with village residents forcing the accused Christians to leave their village. In Cairo, several cases against prominent figures ended in acquittals. But in southern Egypt, where Luxor is located, all recent cases that have gone to trial have ended in convictions, according to EIPR. Throughout Egypt, most cases are brought against Christians.
EIPR’s Ishak Ibrahim says there were six blasphemy convictions in the last two years in Upper Egypt (as southern Egypt is called because of the direction the Nile flows). Last year a Coptic teacher in the city of Sohag was sentenced to six years in prison for insulting Islam and the president. During his trial, Islamist lawyers surrounded the courthouse, chanting and trying to block the defendant’s lawyers from entering.
Mekki decided that the accusations against Abdel Nour were unfounded, but he canceled her temporary contract at the school anyway to calm tensions. He thought this would take care of the matter, he says. But the parents were not satisfied, and they complained to officials above Mekki. He was removed from his post as principal and transferred to an administrative job.
Mekki, who is Muslim, continues to defend Abdel Nour, despite losing his position and facing intense scrutiny himself. “If I wanted to please anyone, I would say she said it, and they would carry me on their shoulders,” he says. Local Christian activists said yesterday that he received threats because of his stance.
The public prosecutor soon filed charges against Abdel Nour for insulting Islam and inciting sectarian strife. She was imprisoned for nearly a week before she was released on $2,862 bail, which her lawyers say is an extravagant sum for this type of case. In a recent similar blasphemy case in Cairo, bail was set at less than $150. In that case, however, the defendant fled before he was convicted and sentenced.
Tharwat Bakhet Eysa, one of Abdel Nour’s lawyers, says the prosecutor questioned the three students who accused her, but did not question the 10 who denied the accusations.
But where Abdel Nour’s lawyers see irregularities, those on the other side say the case is solid. One of the lawyers pressing the case against Abdel Nour is Abdel Hamid Senoussi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader in Luxor and former member of parliament with the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. He said Mekki’s investigation was flawed, and that the principal declared Abdel Nour innocent simply to end the crisis.
“The law says we should punish whoever commits blasphemy,” he says. The consequences of not taking such accusations to court are “fatal,” he adds. “It leads to tension within society. That creates dissatisfaction with the parents, which leads to violence.”
He is convinced of Abdel Nour’s guilt after reviewing the prosecutor’s investigation and talking to the families of the accusers, he said. “When the principal delayed the matter, the kids were crying because of it and because of the insult to the prophet,” he said. “Children do not lie. They don’t make up stories.”