Jail Time Extended for Teacher Accused of Blasphemy in Egypt

Study shows Christians disproportionately accused, sentenced.

CAIRO, Egypt (Morning Star News) – A judge in Egypt on Saturday (May 11) ordered 15 days of additional incarceration for a Coptic Christian teacher jailed last week on accusations of blasphemy and evangelism.

Three elementary schoolchildren and some teachers in the village of Al-Edisat, Luxor Province had complained on April 10 about social studies teacher Dimyana Obeid Abd Al-Nour, who rotates among three schools in the area. They accused her of making allegedly blasphemous comments while she was teaching on April 8 about Amenhotep IV, later known as Akhenaten, a pharaoh who introduced a form of monotheistic theology to ancient Egypt.

Accounts differ, but in some versions of the alleged incident, Al-Nour also made comparisons between the former head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the late Pope Shenouda III, and Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

The three students from Sheikh Sultan Primary School, along with their parents and a handful of teachers, complained to the school administrator, and school officials contacted legal authorities. Al-Nour has not been charged, but on Thursday (May 9) the judge ordered her to be held in prison for four days pending the outcome of an investigation by the general prosecutor’s office.

Human rights group Amnesty International condemned the detention and demanded Al-Nour’s release in a press statement.

“It is outrageous that a teacher finds herself behind bars for teaching a class,” stated Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa program director at Amnesty International. “If she made some professional mistake or deviated from the school curriculum, an internal review should have sufficed. The authorities must release Dimyana Obeid Abd Al-Nour immediately and drop these spurious charges against her.”

The blasphemy and evangelizing accusations against Al-Nour reflect two growing trends in Egypt – disproportionate use of the nation’s blasphemy statutes against members of Egypt’s Christian minority, and blasphemy charges against people working in education, human rights officials said.

“The education system in Egypt is not based on thinking and freedom of expression, but on copying without knowing, and the absence of a forgiving culture, and refusing the other – not accepting the other,” said Ishak Ibrahim, freedom of religion and belief officer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

Ibrahim said people are targeting Christians using the nation’s blasphemy statutes as a weapon. An EIPR study to be released at the end of this month found that 41 percent of blasphemy cases taken to court from Jan. 25, 2011, to Dec. 31, 2012, were filed against Christians, who make up only about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 83 million people.

The total of 36 blasphemy cases involved 63 people. The country’s Sunni Muslim majority, which makes up almost 90 percent of the Egypt’s population, were charged in 59 percent of the cases.

Of the 36 blasphemy cases brought to court, only one case was filed against someone for blaspheming Christianity – in spite of a near-constant din of insults by the nation’s religious leaders against Christians and Christianity on Egypt’s television and radio airwaves. That single case, a blasphemy charge against Sheik Abu Islam for publically burning a Bible in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, was dismissed. A private Coptic attorney is trying to re-file the case.

Al-Nour, in her early 20s and in her first year as a teacher, is not alone as an educator accused of blasphemy. Ibrahim noted that approximately 30 percent of the blasphemy cases filed have been filed against someone in an education environment.

Not all those charged have been sentenced, but so far five teachers, one schoolmaster, one school secretary, one activity supervisor, three students, three university teachers and five university students have either been sentenced to prison, fired from their jobs, forced from school or forced out of their homes by the courts or decisions handed down by “reconciliation councils,” according to EIPR.

Along with the disproportionate number of Christians charged with blasphemy, sentences are harsher for Christians compared with those handed to Muslims, EIPR noted. The study notes that the sentences are also unusually harsh in relation to the nature of the offenses.

One case of biased punishment involved Makarem Diab, 50, a Christian who received six years in prison on Feb. 29, 2012 for what amounted to an argument with a Muslim coworker over religion. Diab and Abd Al Hameed worked at Deer Al Gabrawy Prep School in the town of Abnoub in Assuit Province.

While Al Hameed made the inflammatory claim during the argument that Jesus had had sex with at least 10 women, Diab countered by stating that Muhammad had more than four wives – a view commonly held by Islamic scholars, though disputes arise over whether he had more than four wives over the course of his life or at one time.

Al Hameed was not charged for his comment.

“It’s bigotry,” Ibrahim said. “One person got sentenced, and the Muslim got away with it.”

Ibrahim said he expects to see an increase in charges against Christians; the new constitution employs vague language that could prohibit evangelism, though evangelism is not specifically illegal. At the same time, the new constitution more explicitly criminalizes criticism of Islam.

“It is getting worse, with the change of the constitution, as there is a specific sentence that punishes those who insult Islam,” he said.

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