In Sisi’s Egypt, Blasphemy Is Still a Crime

The Muslim Brotherhood is gone -- but the government is still jailing people for offending Islam.

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CAIRO — In May of last year, rumors started to circulate in a village near the Egyptian city of Luxor that a Christian resident had insulted the Prophet Mohammed. Kyrillos Shawky, 30, began receiving threatening messages from his Muslim neighbors that accused him of posting an offensive cartoon of the prophet on Facebook. When he went to the local police for help, an angry mob gathered outside his family’s house. “There were at least 500 young men carrying Molotov cocktails,” his brother Yunan said. “The police came at one point and arrested a few people, but after they left the mob gathered again. It was only because a handful of Muslim elders from the village came and talked to them that the house wasn’t torched.”

His family was unharmed, but Kyrillos never came back from the police station. Despite telling police that he had no memory of the cartoon, and that he may have clicked on it accidentally due to his poor eyesight, he was arrested and charged with inciting sectarian conflict and insulting Islam. A month later a local court found him guilty and sentenced him to six years in jail. The conviction was upheld at appeal in September. Kyrillos, who was released on bail during the appeal process, is now in hiding. “Our whole family is living in horror at the moment,” Yunan said. “We don’t know if he’ll ever be able to come home.”

The number of blasphemy cases in Egypt soared in the years after the 2011 revolution, and at the time many blamed the rise of political Islam for fostering a climate of sectarianism. But almost two years after a military coup routed the Muslim Brotherhood and brought General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to the presidency, rights advocates say that the overall number of prosecutions for insulting Islam has remained the same. “The numbers went down a little after Morsi’s ouster, but by the second half of 2014 they were at the same level as before,” said Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher on religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, whose research shows that between 2011 and 2013 there were about a dozen such cases a year.

Ibrahim argues that the rise in cases after 2011 was partly caused by the growing confidence of Islamist and Salafist groups, who sought out and targeted those accused of violating religious norms as a way of building political support in a conservative society. “They wanted to appear as defenders of Islam,” said Ibrahim, who argues that the majority of Egyptians are religiously conservative and support moves to punish blasphemers. But Kyrillos’s case, and others like it, show that little has changed on the ground since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Christians accused of offending Islamic sensibilities are still being targeted by extremists, and being prosecuted — and convicted — by Egypt’s legal system.

In one recent case in Daqahliya in northern Egypt, 24-year-old Michael Mounir Bishay was threatened by local extremists who accused him of sharing a video on Facebook of two Muslim sheikhs discussing a controversial religious issue. After protesters mobbed his family home in the village of Demian and threatened to burn it down, police arrested the Christian factory worker “in a bid to calm the Salafist protesters,” said Hamdy Al-Assiouti, a prominent lawyer who has authored a book about Egypt’s blasphemy law and is serving on Michael’s defense team. Michael is currently on trial, charged with insulting Islam.

Christian converts, Shiite Muslims, and atheists have also been prosecuted for insulting Islam in recent cases, and at an appeal hearing last summer, a Christian primary school teacher who was convicted during Mohamed Morsi’s presidency saw her original sentence, a fine, increased to a jail term by the court. The teacher, Demiana Abdel-Nour, had fled abroad after the initial judgment.

President Sisi has portrayed the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood as an attempt to eliminate an alien form of religious extremism. “Egypt is the beacon of moderate Islam,” he told the U.N. General Assembly last year. In a speech in January, this time to Muslim clerics, he called for “a religious revolution” that would see outdated interpretations of Islam shelved. But while Sisi has cast the Brotherhood as a group of extremists who distort Islam, the alternative that he has offered is not a secular one. Rather than pushing for a separation of politics and religion, Sisi has instead argued that it is the state’s role to protect religion and to safeguard traditional values.

Under this mandate, the authorities have tightened their grip on religious life. Thousands of independent mosques have been shut down, Muslim preachers without permits from the state have been banned from the pulpit, and government ministries have launched campaigns to combat an alleged spread of atheism among young people. The authorities have also launched an aggressive crackdown on LGBT people that has seen dozens jailed — far higher numbers than during Morsi’s presidency.

Given the new government’s attempt to shore up support by portraying itself as the guardian of traditional values, rights advocates like Ibrahim are not surprised that the Egyptian police and judiciary are continuing to actively pursue those accused of blasphemy. “Every day [the authorities] speak about the police arresting a woman with men, or about arresting a man for homosexuality,” said Ibrahim. “They are still using religion for political aims.”

For Egyptian Christians, who have long complained of state-endorsed discrimination and restrictions on freedom of worship and belief, the ouster of Mohamed Morsi was supposed to usher in change. Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros called Sisi a “hero” and contrasted him with Mohamed Morsi, who “ruled in the name of religion.” Sisi himself praised the “patriotic role” Christians played in Morsi’s ouster, and in January he became the first Egyptian president to visit a Coptic Christmas mass, telling a delighted congregation that religious distinctions were irrelevant, and that “we must only be Egyptians.”

But minority advocates argue that, despite public displays of unity, the government has done little to improve the situation for Christians. Dozens of churches damaged in sectarian violence in 2013 have yet to be restored despite government pledges to do so, while a long-awaited law that would lift onerous restrictions on building new churches has yet to materialize. “There’s an urgent need to pass a new houses of worship law, but it hasn’t happened,” said Mina Thabet, a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. “One church in Samalout in Minya has had a permit for restoration since 2004, but the government won’t do it because they’re scared of the extremists.”

For Christians accused of blasphemy charges, the pattern is similar: The government promises progress on religious freedoms, but little changes on the ground. The new constitution, passed in 2014 to replace the charter drafted under Mohamed Morsi, contains expanded commitments to freedom of belief, and removes an article that banned “insulting the prophets.” But the articles of Egypt’s penal code that criminalize ridiculing or insulting the Abrahamic religions remain in place, and police, prosecutors and judiciary continue to vigorously enforce them. Rights advocates argue that, despite the constitutional protections on freedom of belief and the talk of unity between Christians and Muslims, there’s little political will to change the current status quo. “Sisi is conservative. He doesn’t care about religious freedom,” said Thabet.

In the village of Mahameed Bahari in Luxor, where Kyrillos’s family lives, Christian residents are still under pressure in the wake of the case. Houses owned by Christians have been attacked, a member of the Shawky family lost his job, and two local Sunday schools were abruptly closed, leaving locals with nowhere to pray. “I never expected this under President Sisi,” said Yunan. “I really didn’t think there would be injustice toward Copts.”

Photo Credit: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

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