ISTANBUL, Turkey (Morning Star News) – Sentenced to prison in Egypt for allegedly insulting Islam in a video, four Coptic teenagers who had taken refuge in Turkey for months on Thursday (Sept. 1) flew to Switzerland to seek asylum.
In exclusive interviews with Morning Star News, the boys said they made their video before the release of the Islamic State (IS) mass execution video they were said to be mocking, and that at the time they had never even heard of the group.
Sentenced to five years in prison, the boys fled Egypt in April and, with the backing of Christian and human rights organizations, lived in secret for five months in a safe house in Istanbul. Two weeks ago, each was granted a humanitarian visa “under special circumstances” to Switzerland, where they will seek asylum.
Albir Shehata, 17, told Morning Star News that the ordeal was unfair and has been crushing, but that the opportunity to start again in Switzerland gives him new hope.
“In Egypt, no one gets punished for blasphemy against Christians,” Shehata said. “There was no reason to be treated that way for something that silly. It was all a joke with the teacher. But now it’s a great feeling, because I feel like I have an opportunity for a better life than what I had in Egypt, because in Egypt my future is ruined. In Switzerland I have an opportunity to make up for it.”
A judge on Feb. 25 sentenced Shehata, Klenton Faragalla, 18, Moller Yasa, 17, and Bassem Younan, 17, all of Al-Nasriyah village in Upper Egypt, to five years in prison for violating Article 98F, Defaming a Revealed (or Heavenly) Religion, in a mobile phone video.
In the 32-second video, Shehata appears for a few seconds kneeling and performing the Salat, the prayer performed five times daily by observant Muslims. Right before the video stops, Younan holds his hand as if it were a knife and draws it across Shehata’s throat. The other two boys shown on camera only wave to the person recording the video and to the other boys.
The boys’ teacher, 43-year-old Gad Younan (no relation to Bassem Younan), recorded the video with his mobile phone on Feb. 14, 2015 at a youth retreat for Copts. Gad Younan was recording everyone in the room, not just the boys, and Shehata and Bassem Younan said neither of them intended to mock Islam in any way; they were merely trying to get the teacher’s attention in a dorm room crowded with Christians by making silly gestures.
Gad Younan later misplaced his phone, and on April 6, 2015, a Muslim in their village found it and played the video.
Word of the video spread rapidly throughout Al-Nasriyah. By the next day, a group of Muslims complained to the police, and on April 8 a mob of enraged Muslims began tearing through the village, beating any Copt they could find.
For three days the rioting raged as thousands of Muslims from adjacent villages came to Al-Nasriyah to join the looting. At least 15 stores were damaged or destroyed. Mobs roamed through Al-Nasriyah chanting Islamic slogans and demanded all Christians be pushed out of the village.
During the rioting, the four boys were terrified for their lives. On more than one occasion mobs surrounded their homes chanting for their deaths. Shehata said that while he was trapped in his home, hiding, he could hear people outside arguing over who had the right to kill him.
“People were arguing over who would get the blessing and honor of killing me, or if they should all join in and have part of the blessing,” he said.
Even after the rioting ended, mobs occasionally formed and marched through the streets, threatening Copts.
The teacher was arrested on April 7, 2015 at his home, one day after the phone was found, and on April 9 the boys were able to get to the village mayor’s house during a lull in the rioting. A detail of soldiers took them to police after telling them they would spend just a few hours at the station to be admonished by authorities and then released, the boys said. Instead, the minors were severely interrogated, beaten and then put in jail.
Conditions in jail were harsh. In addition to being given little other than rotten, boiled eggs and bread to eat, Faragalla said prison guards offered rewards to inmates to beat them, and they did so regularly. The guards and inmates also tried to force them to convert to Islam.
“When I was put in the cell on the first day, the guard told them, ‘These boys dare to insult Islam – show them how we treat people who insult our holy religion,’’ Faragalla said.
As harsh as the treatment was, at times a handful of inmates protected the boys from violence and made sure they had more food.
“God really took care of us,” Shehata said.
After hearings for the trial started, the boys eventually were released on a security bond of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (US$1,125) each. In all Shehata, Yasa, and Younan spent a little more than 50 days in jail. Faragalla spent 63.
“We went into a jail for adult prisoners, but we were still children,” Faragalla said. “But we saw people doing hashish and all other sorts of drugs.”
From the beginning, the boys said, the trial appeared to have a foregone outcome of conviction.
The teacher had been banished from town during a “reconciliation” meeting. Taking their cue from the banishment and concerned that they would be killed as they awaited trial, the four suspects went into hiding almost immediately after being released on bail.
Yasa and Younan fled to the resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, while Shehata hid in Hurghada, a city on the Red Sea.
Faragalla was forced to spend most of the next year on the run, sleeping in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. Churches that had known him before the incident refused to help him, largely out of fear, he said.
The boys had very little part in their defense. They said their defense attorney, in an effort to garner sympathy for them, claimed they were making fun of IS terrorists in the video, following the release of IS’s video showing the beheading of 20 Coptic Christians in Libya. The boys adamantly denied this to Morning Star News.
They said that until recently they never read the news regularly and knew nothing about the existence of the terrorist group, much less the mass beheading. They said the attorney’s claim was a total fabrication, as the mobile phone video was recorded before IS released its now infamous video of the mass beheading.
Because of their attorney’s statements, however, the fiction about IS being the subject of the boys’ scorn was widely reported in Egyptian and international media.
A great deal of other false information was spread about the video inside Egypt, they said. Rumors circulated that it was a form of trailer for a movie, or that the video circulating in the public was actually a sample of one that was an hour long.
The boys’ attorney told them that the judge who sentenced them to prison never even watched the video, they said, adding that the only judicial authority that reviewed the video was a judge who ordered them released on bail.
The boys were stunned when they heard the news that they were sentenced to five years in prison.
“I was shocked; I couldn’t believe it, I was so confused,” Shehata said.
Faragalla said he thought Yasa was kidding when he told him the sentence.
“I thought it was a joke, and that we had been released with no charge,” he said.
Flight from Egypt
In early April, the boys’ left the places they were hiding, snuck out of Egypt and flew to Turkey.
Most of the details about how they escaped Egyptian authorities cannot be published for security reasons.
Despite the relative anonymity of living in a large city like Istanbul, on one occasion the boys were recognized together by an Egyptian Muslim traveling in Turkey. The boys also suffered persecution from people in Turkey who assumed they were Muslim based on their Middle Eastern features and became incensed when they found out they were Christian. On one occasion, a Turkish man on the street where Shehata was living assaulted him when he found out Shehata wasn’t a Muslim.
Other persecution came when the boys looked for jobs. Wherever they approached shopkeepers or business owners, they were asked if they were Muslim, they said. When the boys said they weren’t, they were briskly turned away.
“It was a very hurtful thing; sometimes we lied so we wouldn’t be embarrassed,” Faragalla said.
Shehata said when he came to Turkey he wore his cross on top of his clothes, but because of reactions in Istanbul, he eventually wore it under his shirt.
“My cross was never a sign of shame for me,” he said. “The cross is a sign of pride, but in Egypt it is seen as shameful. It seems to be the same in Turkey.”
At the end of April the four boys registered with the United Nations to apply for refugee status. After the boys were registered, one human rights group and at least two Christian organizations worked apart from the U.N., discreetly through international channels, to obtain entry visas for them to a potential host country where they could apply for permanent asylum. Daniel Hoffman, executive director of Middle East Concern (MEC), one of the agencies working to protect the four teenagers, said Switzerland responded completely differently from all other countries they approached.
“We are grateful for the Swiss authorities and our partners in Switzerland who helped get them to Switzerland,” Hoffman said. “We applied to a number of countries to allow these boys to come in outside of the U.N. process, and Switzerland was the first and only one to respond positively.”
Normally, Hoffman said, one of MEC’s goals when assisting persecuted Christians is to help them remain safely in the region. In this case, however, the teenagers had already fled Egypt before they requested MEC’s help.
The boys now join other Copts banished from their lives because of the blasphemy law. Egyptian teacher Demyana Abd al-Nour fled to France in 2013 after being falsely charged with blasphemy. She had been sentenced to six years in prison.
Also forced into internal exile for blasphemy was Kerolos Shouky Attallah, 31, of Al-Mahamid village, who was sentenced to six years in prison in 2014 for “liking” a Facebook post on a Christian website about Islam. Since the conviction, he lives secretly in different church buildings and monasteries.
Human rights advocates in Egypt and internationally roundly condemn the the country’s statutes against “defaming a heavenly religion,” saying they are “weaponized laws” used against the Coptic minority in Egypt that violate the basic human right to free speech.
While the case against the boys may be considered religious persecution in that the trial was apparently biased, the punishment disproportionate and the existence of the blasphemy law itself a tool for targeting religious minorities, critics say it is also a case of violation of free speech. The case illustrated once again the double standard in Egypt that Copts suffer from Egyptian government officials and society, human right advocates said.
While anti-Christian hate speech is common in all elements of Egyptian society, only one Muslim in Egypt has ever been charged with defiling Christianity in Egypt. Ahmad Mahmoud Abdullah, also known as “Abu Islam,” a Salafi Muslim and former television preacher known for his vitriolic anti-Christian messages, was sentenced to six months in prison on appeal for burning a Bible in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in 2012.
Other Muslim clerics whose comments have incited riots in which Christians have been killed have escaped punishment.
“The blasphemy law is unfair and should be canceled,” Yasa said. “It’s only used against the Christians.”
The boys said they were all grateful to have an opportunity to start a new life, but Faragalla said he hopes one day to return to Egypt.
“We’re not going to lose hope about going back to Egypt in the future,” he said. “We will either go when we get citizenship or permanent residency to a new country.”
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