Four Coptic Christian teenagers face up to five years in prison after an Egyptian court found them guilty of insulting Islam, continuing a trend of blasphemy accusations in a country whose Christian minority lacks many basic social and legal protections.
The charges are “only the latest case in a pattern that can be seen since the Egyptian revolution” according to Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
“Most of these cases target Christians, although we’ve had 10 targeting non-Christians,” he told CNA March 10.
Since the 2011 revolution against President Hosni Mubarak, there have been many legal charges of insulting Islam. Sometimes the charges concern something as simple as a Facebook post. In some cases, Christians faced action merely for being tagged in a post on Facebook.
“They’re not even the ones posting it, but they’re still accused of insulting Islam,” Tadros said.
The latest legal action came at a Feb. 25 hearing.
The teenagers from Minya province, south of Cairo, were accused of making a 32-second video that allegedly mocked the Muslim way of praying, the New York Times reports. A Muslim classmate discovered the video, and three of the teenagers were sentenced to five years in prison. The fourth is still under age 18 and is in a juvenile facility.
The accused did not attend the hearing.
“Their parents have sent them to uncles and aunts outside of Minya,” their lawyer Maher Naguib told the New York Times. “They feared for their safety. They are all terrified and crying now.”
The video shows one student kneeling on the ground, apparently pretending to recite Quran verses as his friends stand and laugh behind him. One of the students places a hand under another student’s neck as if to behead him.
The clip was filmed by a teacher, who is also a Christian. In a separate trial, he was convicted of showing contempt for Islam.
Coptic Christians in the Minya province suffered attacks in summer 2013 after the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi, who had links with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Tadros said that most of the accusations of insults to Islam happen in villages or small towns.
There can be major consequences for rumors that a Christian student, teacher, or headmaster has insulted Islam. A mob can gather and begin to attack, somethings throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails. Mobs have targeted churches as well as Christian homes and businesses.
When police finally arrive, they arrest the person accused of the crime of blasphemy “basically in order to make the mob happy, to regain control of the village, to maintain basic order,” Tadros said.
The legal process against an accused person often means that the whole family is forced to leave the village.
Mob attacks can be driven by blasphemy accusations, a rumor that a church is being built, or that a Christian had a sexual relationship with a Muslim woman.
“There’s no police protection, no one tries to stop them,” Tadros said. “More importantly, there’s no legal punishment. Every single one of these attacks go on and not a single person involved in them has received any legal verdict. That’s a serious problem because it creates a culture of impunity which in turn becomes a culture of encouragement.”
“Many people believe that the Christians are alien, that they are enemies and that attacking them is permissible,” he lamented.
About ten percent of Egypt’s 90 million people are Coptic Christians. But strict laws and mob violence mean they cannot easily build new churches, or repair the ones they have.
Tadros said that unofficial quotas in the military, the government and all levels of society mean less than one percent of the military and police force is Christian. Christian presence in the universities and schools is also limited.
“Christian history and the Christian presence in the story of Egypt is extremely marginalized,” he said. “History books in Egyptian schools would discuss the Pharaohs, the Greeks, the Roman period, and then there’s a 300-year gap in history where it’s left to the students’ imagination to think what happened before the Arab Muslim armies came.”
Tadros said it is most important to ensure that the state enforce the law for crimes targeting Copts.
“What Copts are asking for is not preferable treatment, what they want is basic law and order,” Tadros said. “If someone burns a shop then he should be punished for it legally. If a Christian is killed in mob violence, her murderers should get sentences.”
The marginalization of Christians in Egypt has financial implications, where they have traditionally played a strong economic role. Christians tend to be better educated and more open to bridging the gap between cultures.
Tadros noted the many successful Copts who have emigrated abroad, to countries like the United States.
“You wonder: it’s America’s gain, but it’s Egypt’s loss,” he said. “Egypt has lost a lot of its citizens that could make it a much better place.”
“It’s not just a question of ‘we need to be nice’. It’s that your policies are impacting your whole country’s economic trajectory.”
Tadros suggested the U.S. government can influence the situation in a positive way.
“Obviously the U.S. has a strong relationship with Egypt. The U.S. provides $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt every year. That aid mainly goes to the Egyptian military,” he said. “There is a very strong relationship there that allows the United States to talk to its Egyptian partners and tell them they can’t have these incidents continue.”