EGYPT: Christian teacher’s blasphemy trial opens

The trial of the Coptic woman accused of blasphemy opened on Tuesday 21 May. Primary school teacher Dimyana Obeid Abd Al-Nour did not attend the court hearing because she is in hiding.

Dozens of lawyers crowded the small, hot courtroom, eager to participate in the case, which her lawyers and local activists say is unjust. Dimyana, who comes from a village near Luxor in southern Egypt, was accused by three pupils of insulting Islam during a social studies class. Soon after she had begun working at the Naga El Sheikh Sultan primary school in early April, the three pupils accused her of putting her hands to her throat while mentioning Islam, as if she wanted to vomit, and then saying that the late Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III was better than the Prophet Mohamed.

The public prosecutor soon filed charges against Dimyana for insulting Islam and inciting sectarian strife. She was imprisoned for nearly a week before she was released on what lawyers say is a very large bail for this type of case. Tharwat Bakhet Eysa, one of her lawyers, says the prosecutor questioned the three pupils who accused her, but did not question the ten who denied the accusations.

School principal’s verdict

Mostafa Mekki (pictured), the school principal, says he conducted an immediate investigation. According to his handwritten report, he questioned all pupils in the class, and all but the three who had accused her denied the accusations. Mostafa Mekki described the parents of all three children who accused her as “extremists” and said that at least one of them is known for inciting sectarian strife in the past. The principal said the parents were not happy with the teacher, partly because she wore jeans instead of skirts, and did not cover her hair.

Mostafa Mekki decided that the accusations against Dimyana were unfounded, but he cancelled her temporary contract at the school to calm tensions, thinking that this would end the matter. The parents were not satisfied, however, and they complained to higher officials. The principal was removed from his post and transferred to an administrative job. Mostafa Mekki, who is Muslim, continues to defend Dimyana, and local Christian activists say that he has received threats because of his stance. “If I wanted to please anyone, I would say she said it, and they would carry me on their shoulders,” he said.

Opposition

One of the lawyers pressing the case is Abdel Hamid Senoussi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader in Luxor and former member of parliament for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. He said Mostafa Mekki’s investigation was flawed, and that the principal had declared Dimyana innocent simply to end the crisis. “The law says we should punish whoever commits blasphemy,” he said, adding that failing to take such accusations to court “leads to tension within society. That creates dissatisfaction with the parents, which leads to violence.”

Abdel Hamid Senoussi said he would prefer the case to end in reconciliation instead of punishment, with Dimyana admitting guilt and apologising. He said that he was convinced of Dimyana’s guilt after reviewing the prosecutor’s investigation and talking to the families of the accusers: “When the principal delayed the matter, the kids were crying because of it and because of the insult to the Prophet. Children do not lie. They don’t make up stories.”

The father of one of the students who accused Dimyana of blasphemy told the Christian Science Monitor, on condition of anonymity, that he is convinced that the accusations are true. He teaches at a school run by Al Azhar, the seat of Sunni Islamic learning, and also runs a small institute teaching Quranic memorisation. He and Abdel Hamid Senoussi say the case has nothing to do with tensions between Christians and Muslims – the latter said, “We have good relations with Christians.”

However, Christians in Luxor and the surrounding villages say otherwise. “All Coptic teachers are scared here now that any child who fights with them could accuse them of blasphemy and drag them to court,” said Safwat Samaan Yasaa, a local rights activist.

Sarabamon El Shayeb (pictured), a Coptic priest who is head of the All Saints Monastery in the village of Tud, near Dimyana’s family home, called the trial a “class-A sectarian case”. “It’s a huge mistake to take this out of its sectarian context,” he said. “This case is not just about Dimyana, it’s about organised repression of the Copts. The Islamists are giving out the accusations of blasphemy generously and openly, mostly against Christians.”

Increasing fears for Christians

Local Christians are watching Dimyana’s case with deep concern. They say that the Islamists’ rise to power, including the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, has encouraged extremists to discriminate against Egyptian Christians, who make up about ten percent of the population. By some estimates, tens of thousands of Christians have fled Egypt since the revolution in 2011.

While blasphemy cases did occur under former president Hosni Mubarak, they have become much more frequent since the 2011 uprising that ousted him and brought Islamists to power. Egypt’s new constitution, drafted last year by an Islamist-led committee, criminalises blasphemy, bolstering a pre-existing law against insulting religions.

From 2011 to 2012, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) counted 36 accusations of blasphemy that were dealt with extra-legally, sometimes with local people forcing accused Christians to leave their village. In Cairo, several cases against prominent figures ended in acquittals, but in southern Egypt all recent cases that have gone to trial have ended in convictions. Throughout Egypt, most cases are brought against Christians. EIPR’s Ishak Ibrahim says there were six blasphemy convictions in the last two years in southern Egypt. 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.

Egypt at a crossroads

According to Bishop Thomas (pictured) of the El-Qussia and Mair Diocese in Upper Egypt, the country stands at a crossroads: “Either Egypt will go in the direction of strong, fundamentalist conservatism, or we will go in the direction of openness and civil society.”

Speaking in London on 21 May, the bishop said that in the two years since President Hosni Mubarak’s deposition, Egypt has enjoyed improved freedom of speech, but that “There is a big force that is leading and pushing the society to go towards conservatism. We need to bring forces that work towards openness and civil society.”

Bishop Thomas said that transformation must take the shape of three societal changes – democracy, gender equality and religious freedom.

(Christian Science Monitor, MidEast Christian News, World Watch Monitor)

Church in Chains has written to the Egyptian Ambassador to Ireland – caling for the immediate dismissal of the case against Ms Al-Nour.