Christians in Egypt Targeted With Charges of 'Religious Defamation'

September 12, 2013 - 3:33 AM

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Coptic Christians pray in a church in Assiut, Egypt on August 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

(CNSNews.com) – The wielding of “religious defamation” lawsuits has escalated in Egypt in the two-and-a-half years since the Mubarak regime was ousted, an Egyptian human rights group has found. Christians have been disproportionately targeted.

The release Wednesday of a study by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) coincided with the first day of the Coptic new year. (The Coptic calendar dates back to the start of the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian in 284, so the year beginning on Wednesday is 1730.)

Coptic Pope Tawadros II marked the day with a sermon in Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral comparing Egypt’s situation today with labor pains.

“After a few hours, all of this will turn into happiness when a child is born and a new life begins,” he said.

According to the state-owned daily Al-Ahram, it was the first sermon Tawadros had delivered in ten weeks, having earlier suspended the weekly tradition due to the security situation.

Egypt’s Copts and other Christians have faced an escalation of violence at the hands of Islamists angered by the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood administration of Mohammed Morsi in early July.

The report by EIPR, an 11-year-old non-governmental organization, found that Muslims made up 59 percent of defendants in religious defamation cases since former President Hosni Mubarak’s departure while Christians – who account for only ten percent of the population – comprised 41 percent of cases.

Many cases involved “intimidation aimed at curbing freedom of opinion, belief and expression.”

The report also observed a “noted failure of state institutions to provide adequate protection to victims,” with police unable to protect the accused or to prevent attacks on their property. It attributed this, in part, to bigotry.

The report’s author, Ishaq Ibrahim, was quoted by the independent Daily News Egypt as saying that during the Mubarak era there were “a small number” of religious defamation cases, mostly involving public figures accused of offenses in the making of movies of publishing of books.

“Between the period of the rule of the armed forces in 2011 and Morsi’s presidency in 2012, an increase of 100 percent occurred in the cases of religious defamation,” Ibrahim said.

The violations continued “even after the Muslim Brotherhood’s fall from power” in July, EIPR said.

The report found that those accused of religious defamation after the 2011 revolution tended to be ordinary citizens rather than prominent public figures as had been the case in earlier decades, and that much of the “offending” related to social media.

Some suspected offenders were “hunted down through Facebook or Twitter,” said Amr Abdel Rahman, head of EIPR’s civil liberties unit. A “small action” performed on a computer could land a person in prison for several years, he said.

The report said those targeted included citizens holding minority beliefs, as well as those expressing opinions on controversial religious matters after the 2011 revolution – both under the interim military council’s rule and, from mid-2012, under Morsi’s administration.

A high point for religious defamation allegations and cases was from September to November last year. The report linked the spate of incidents to the furor over an amateur online video clip denigrating Mohammed, which saw Islamists mobilize protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

Exactly one year ago on Wednesday, the embassy compound’s walls were breached by Muslims protesting the video. They destroyed an American flag and raised a black banner stating, “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.”

At the time the Muslim Brotherhood demanded that “assaults on the sanctities of all heavenly religions” be criminalized, and Morsi in an address on state television called Mohammed “a red line for all Muslims.”

“We do not accept and we consider an enemy anyone who assaults our prophet through words or deeds,” he said.

Egypt’s public prosecutor subsequently issued a warrant for seven U.S.-based Egyptian Copts, accusing them “insulting the Islamic religion, insulting the prophet and inciting sectarian strife.” (They included the man who produced the video, who was subsequently arrested by U.S. authorities for probation violations and sentenced to one years’ imprisonment.)

While religious defamation cases may have escalated since the departure of Mubarak, his government was an enthusiastic supporter of the concept that a religion can be defamed.

That belief formed the basis of a decade-long campaign by the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – with Egypt and Pakistan at the forefront – aimed at getting the U.N. to outlaw “defamation of Islam.”

Critics, including many Western governments, viewed the drive as attempt to ban any critical scrutiny of Islamic teachings or practices.

‘A method to restrict free speech’

Egypt’s penal code, dating back to 1937, includes a provision outlawing the use of religion in advocating – through speech, writing or any other method – extremist thoughts with the aim of instigating division, ridiculing “heavenly religions” or the sects following them, or damaging national unity. (“Heavenly religions” are Islam, Christianity and Judaism.)

Penalties include fines and imprisonment ranging from six months to five years.

According to Ibrahim, the law’s original aim was to stop the spread of Islamist extremist ideas. “However, it slowly started becoming a method to restrict freedom of speech.”

The new constitution pushed through by the Muslim Brotherhood administration last year included an article (44) prohibiting the “insult or abuse of all religious messengers and prophets.”

That constitution is currently being reviewed by a 50-member panel set up by the military-installed interim government after Morsi’s ouster. Article 44 stands a good chance of being removed by the panel, which is dominated by liberals and secularists.

Recommendations contained in the EIPR report include constitutional reform, the amendment of existing laws deemed to restrict freedom and steps to guarantee the right to due process.

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