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PAKISTAN: Life sentence upheld for Christian in blasphemy case

Life sentence upheld for Christian in blasphemy case

Islamist pressure again appears to influence judges in Pakistan.

Morning Star News ( 27.06.2021) – https://bit.ly/3h4HG7B – A court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan upheld the life sentence of a Christian convicted of sending blasphemous text messages in spite of the prosecution’s manipulated evidence and failure to establish his involvement, his lawyer said.

 

Zafar Bhatti, 56, had been handed the life sentence, which in Pakistan is 25 years, on May 3, 2017, under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for allegedly sending text messages derogatory to Islam’s prophet. The Christian continues to deny the charge.

 

On Tuesday (June 22), an additional sessions judge in Rawalpindi District upheld Bhatti’s conviction even though new evidence presented by the prosecution again failed to directly link Bhatti with the alleged offense, according to his attorney.

 

In a bid to convert his life term into a death sentence, the complainant in the case, Ibrar Ahmed Khan, last year filed an application in the Lahore High Court (LHC) Rawalpindi Bench seeking forensic examination of cellular company audio samples to try to establish Bhatti’s direct involvement in the texts, attorney Tahir Bashir said.

 

Police had obtained audio samples from the cellular company during the trial, but they could not be examined forensically due to absence of a testing facility at that time, he said.

 

Police obtained samples from three people, including the SIM card’s registered owner, Ghazala Khan, who used to work with Bhatti.

 

“When someone calls the cellular company for activation of the SIM card, their voices are recorded,” Bashir said. “In this case, the SIM used in the alleged offense was activated thrice – the first two times by some people related to Ms. Khan, and the third time by the woman herself. Bhatti never possessed the SIM, but his phone set was mysteriously used to send those blasphemous text messages. It’s quite clear that the convict was trapped in the case through his phone.”

 

Khan was also arrested and charged with blasphemy in 2012. At her trial in April 2013, Justice Khalid Mehmood of the LHC Rawalpindi Bench refused to pass judgment against her and instead tried to convince the complainant to forgive her. Khan said she was innocent and did not want forgiveness but to be freed on merit.

 

The judge showed leniency and granted her bail. She died in November 2016 from Hepatitis C, aged 39.

 

Bashir said that on April 15, LHC Rawalpindi Bench Justice Sadaqat Ali Khan remanded the case to Rawalpindi Additional Sessions Judge Sahibzada Naqeeb Sultan with the direction to complete the examination of “new evidence” within two months.

 

Citing “evidence manipulation,” Bashir said that the CD allegedly containing Bhatti’s voice sample from the cellular company’s records turned out to be blank when it was played in court.

 

“The police then sought time from the judge and manufactured a new CD containing Bhatti’s audio samples from the recordings that were made in the presence of a magistrate during the trial in 2017,” he said. “They presented this CD as a record from the cellular company even as I argued that the audio record should be directly summoned from the company.”

 

During the initial trial, the judge was not satisfied with the evidence purported to incriminate Bhatti, so he had sentenced him to life imprisonment even though the mandatory punishment under Section 295-C is death, the attorney said.

 

“The trial court judge had given the verdict under immense pressure, because the complainant was an office bearer of the Islamist extremist outfit Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat,” Bashir said. “I believe the verdict delivered this time was also under pressure, because there’s no direct evidence against Bhatti.”

 

Lower court judges routinely hesitate to make rulings based on merit or free those accused of blasphemy, instead transferring their burden to higher courts while the accused and their families suffer.

 

Bashir said that he had filed an appeal against Bhatti’s conviction in the Lahore High Court in 2017, but it had been repeatedly adjourned on one pretext or the other over the years.

 

“On the other hand, the LHC ordered reexamination of the evidence on a single application by the complainant,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate that innocent people are made to suffer in jail, and their appeals are kept pending by the higher courts for years.”

Despite the “disappointing verdict” and delay tactics, he said he was still hopeful that the LHC would accept his appeal and order Bhatti’s acquittal.

 

Church officials and human rights groups say blasphemy allegations are frequently used not only to settle personal scores but to target religious minorities in Pakistan.

 

A Senate Special Committee on Human Rights and the Islamabad High Court in 2018 recommended that those making false blasphemy accusations be given the same punishments as those for blasphemy convictions, but the government dismissed the recommendation. The recommendation also stated that anyone registering a blasphemy case at a police station must bring two witnesses.

 

While punishment for blasphemy ranges from several years in prison to death in Pakistan, a person making a false accusation faces potential punishment of only six months in prison or a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$6). Successive governments have acknowledged that the blasphemy laws are blatantly misused, but little effort has been made to stop the abuses.

 

Rights activists say it’s unlikely that any government will move to repeal or amend the blasphemy laws due to fierce Islamist sentiments in the Muslim-majority country. They say Pakistani authorities must be urged to immediately implement effective procedural and institutional safeguards at the investigative, prosecutorial and judicial levels to prevent abuse of these laws.

 

At least 35 people in prison in 2020 received death sentences for blasphemy, compared with 29 the previous year, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2020 International Religious Freedom Report. The report cites the Center for Social Justice, a national Non-Governmental Organization, as reporting that at least 199 people were accused of blasphemy offenses in 202, the highest number of blasphemy cases in a single year in the country’s history. Most of the accused were Shia (70 percent of cases) and Ahmadis (20 percent), according to the report.

 

The U.S. State Department in December re-designated Pakistan among nine other “Countries of Particular Concern” for severe violations of religious freedom. Previously Pakistan had been added to the list on Nov. 28, 2018.

 

Pakistan ranked fifth on Christian support organization Open Doors 2021 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

Photo : Market in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. (Trueblood7886, Creative Commons)

Further reading in Pakistan on HRWF website





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VIETNAM: COVID-19 leads to prosecution of House-Church group

Organization’s registration suspended.

 

Morning Star News (02.06.2021) – https://bit.ly/3g8CIWV – A house-church organization in Vietnam is facing government prosecution and community hate due to COVID-19, sources said.

 

A couple who attended the meeting place of the Revival Ekklesia Mission (REM), an independent, charismatic house-church organization headquartered in Ho Chi Minh City, went to the Gia Dinh General Hospital on May 26 not feeling well. Authorities had imposed a ban on meetings of more than 20 people the last two weeks of May, and by then the church had gone mostly online, with only seven people present, according to REM leader the Rev. Vo Xuan Loan.

 

When the couple tested positive for COVID-19, Vietnam’s highly organized tracing system went into action. By Tuesday (June 1), officials had identified 211 other positive cases connected with the REM center.

 

Infections had also spread to seven other provinces. Nearly 200,000 residents in 16 districts of Ho Chi Minh City were “associated with this cluster,” according to the HCMC Center for Disease Control. Some 50,000 people in the vicinity were to be tested.

 

Fallout was swift. On Sunday (May 30), the REM’s registration was “temporarily suspended,” and on Tuesday (June 1), local security police announced the group was under criminal investigation for spreading COVID-19. The deputy minister of Home Affairs said if serious violations were found, REM would suffer much stiffer penalties, including the possibility of “permanent erasure.”

 

Authorities have locked down Ho Chi Minh City over this and other hotspots, and foreign incoming flights have been suspended. Authorities in Hanoi immediately tested people at REM’s two Hanoi branches and found negative results, yet all religious gatherings in the capital have been shuttered effective immediately.

 

Vietnamese media, all under government control, are rife with negative reports, rumors and innuendo about the organization.

 

The headquarters of the REM is the home of its co-directors, the Rev. Vo Xuan Loan and her husband, the Rev. Phuong Van Tan, and their family. The organization was locally “registered” to carry out religious activities, but this status falls far short of being “legally recognized.”

 

Both Catholics and evangelicals have been appreciative of and compliant with Vietnam’s strict and largely successful measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This REM hotspot, though it had not violated limits on gatherings, appears to have provided officials an opportunity to come down on house churches.

 

The deputy minister of Home Affairs, Gen. Vu Chien Thang, who also serves as the chairman of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs (GCRA), asserted that the REM was not a church and that its leaders could not call themselves “reverend” or “pastor.” A GCRA bulletin issued on Friday (May 28) to all provincial and city People’s Committees under federal jurisdiction required local authorities to nearly single out house churches for inspection and education regarding COVID-19 regulations.

 

Christians fear that authorities, with limited goodwill toward evangelicals at best, are using the REM outbreak as a reason to sternly caution religious bodies and leaders to follow COVID-19 restrictions, but with extra severity toward house churches. In a narrow application of the Law on Religion, Deputy Prime Minister Truong Hoa Binh asserted, “REM is only a gathering point, not a religion,” contrary to its practice as a faith community acknowledged by Christians and even state media.

 

The Rev. Loan, hospitalized with COVID-19 and on oxygen, composed an emotional, open letter of apology full of remorse to all affected for being an unwitting center of a COVID-19 hotspot. The letter also sincerely thanks authorities for all they are doing, including caring for those who contracted COVID-19 through the REM hotspot. In an interview published on Monday (May 31) in the Dan Viet newspaper, the Rev. Loan promised to pay for all government services and medical costs and reimburse everyone who suffered economic loss in connection with the REM COVID-19 spread.

 

Some Christian leaders are pushing back. A Methodist pastor who says he represents several other denominations wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh begging for clemency and compassion for the REM instead of hostility and prosecution.

 

He points out that REM is a victim, not a willing or careless initiator. Pastors of other denominations have made it known that they are scrambling to write another supportive open letter. In a letter on Monday (May 31) to Catholic priests, Ho Chi Minh City Archbishop Giuse Nguyen Nang stated that REM is a victim of COVID-19 like so many others and should be treated with brotherly compassion and care, not criminal suspicion.

 

The Province of our Queen of Martyrs order published an article in Vietnamese on the Da Minh Viet Nam website on Monday (May 31), entitled, “Don’t accuse, rather empathize with the Revival Ekklesia Mission.” It describes a vicious social media campaign against the REM and its members, including attacks on their faith.

 

The article ask why the REM should be so publicly singled out when much larger hotspot sources previously went without mention. It concludes with this appeal: “At times like this we need more love for each other and forgiveness of one another, not accusations and slander. Let’s support each other in prayer and encourage one another to overcome this current hardship.”

 

Christians doubt that Vietnamese authorities will hear this message.

 

Vietnam ranked 19th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

 

Photo : edarabia.com





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ALGERIA: Pastor receives suspended sentence and heavy fine

His church building one of three a court orders sealed.

 

Morning Star News (06.06.2021) – https://bit.ly/3g85eIp – Less than a week after a a court in Algeria ordered pastor Rachid Seighir’s church to close, a judge in handed him a one-year suspended sentence and a fine for “shaking the faith” of Muslims with Christian literature at his bookstore, sources said.

 

Pastor Seighir’s Oratoire Church building in the city of Oran was one of three ordered to be sealed in western Algeria’s Oran Province on Wednesday (June 2). On Sunday (June 6) he and bookstore salesman Nouh Hamimi were sentenced to one-year suspended sentences and a fine of 200,000 dinars (US$1,494) in a ruling on their appeal of a prior sentence of two years in prison and a fine of 500,000 dinars (US$3,745).

 

The pastor was the manager of the now-closed bookstore in Oran, a coastal city 268 miles west of Algiers. The judgment in March read that he and Hamimi were condemned for “distributing publications or any other propaganda undermining the faith of a Muslim.”

 

Pastor Seighir has said the conviction was mere retaliation in a conflict over the bookstore going back to 2008, when he was convicted of the same charges and acquitted on appeal. The governor of Oran ordered the bookshop closed in 2017, but in April 2018, a court ruled the closure order was invalid due to procedural problems – though authorities continued to keep the bookshop closed, he said.

 

Sunday’s appeal ruling came after postponements of scheduled hearings on May 16 and May 30. The Christians’ attorney, Farid Khemisti, said they would appeal on Wednesday (June 9) to the Court of Oran and, if necessary, to the Supreme Court.

 

Algeria’s 2006 law regulating non-Muslim worship, known as Law 03/06, criminalizes the publishing or distributing of any materials “which aim to undermine the faith of a Muslim.” Punishment can range from two to five years in prison and fines of 500,000 to 1 million Algerian dinars (US$3,745 to US$7,490).

 

Church Closures

 

The court ruling on Wednesday (June 2) ordering the closure Pastor Seighir’s church building and those of churches in El-Ayaid and Ain-Turk came as a result of efforts to seal the buildings by the governor (wali) of Oran Province.

“This is a judgment that the wali of Oran won against us,” Pastor Seighir told Morning Star News. “It is ordered to proceed with the immediate closure of the three places of worship.”

 

Ain-Turk is about 35 kilometers (21 miles) west of the city of Oran, and El-AIyaid is about 35 kilometers east of Oran.

 

“To tell you the truth, I don’t understand what’s going on,” Pastor Seighir said. “This is purely an attack against us Algerian Christians and the churches. There have been three different walis, and that did not prevent the charges against us from remaining. It is therefore clear that the source of our trouble comes from those higher than the walis.”

 

On Dec. 28, 2017, the then-governor of Oran Province, Mouloud Cherifi, had sent notice that the Oratoire church was “not in accordance with the laws in force,” namely registration under Law 03/06, which regulates non-Muslim worship. The 2006 law requires non-Muslim worship buildings to be licensed, but all applications to do so have remained unattended.

 

The ruling against Pastor Seighir and Hamimi comes after a Christian who had received and reposted a cartoon of the prophet of Islam on his Facebook account three years ago was sentenced to five years in prison and fined 100,000 dinars (US$750) under an Algerian law against insulting Muhammad.

 

Christian Interrogated

 

In Ain-Defla Province about 145 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Algiers, Gendarmerie stopped two Christians preparing to travel to worship in the capital, holding one for four hours of interrogation, he said.

 

Ahmed Beghal (name changed for security reasons) said officers also searched his home and seized Christian books and personal documents.

 

On Apri 17 at about 7 a.m. Beghal and his friend had yet to leave his town of Ain Seltane when officers stopped them on the road, he said. Taken to brigade quarters, Beghal was held for questioning while his friend was quickly released after separate questioning.

 

“Not knowing the reason for our arrest, I questioned the head of the brigade,” Beghal said. “The latter replied, ‘There are many rumors and accusations circulating about you. You are very active, it seems.’”

 

Beghal, whose wife and children left him in 2017 because of his conversion to Christianity, said that the day before the arrest he and others had shared the gospel with people.

 

After officers questioned him, they took him to his home to search it.

“They took all my books and documents,” Beghal told Morning Star News. “They told me that to get them back I have to go to the public prosecutor.”

 

Beghal, who wrote to the prosecutor asking for his belongings to be returned to him, is scheduled to appear before a judge on June 16. He is accused of fundraising for the creation of a Christian association without authorization.

 

Islam is the state religion in the 99-percent Muslim country. Since 2000, thousands of Algerian Muslims have put their faith in Christ. Algerian officials estimate the number of Christians at 50,000, but others say it could be twice that number.

 

Algeria ranked 24th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, up from 42nd place in 2018.

 

Photo : City of Oran, including Santa Cruz citadel and church. (Lilata, Creative Commons)

Further reading about FORB in Algeria on HRWF website





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INDIA: First Christian arrested under new ‘anti-conversion’ law

South Korean jailed along with three other suspects.

 

Morning Star News (04.01.2021) – https://bit.ly/38DdY5i – A Korean Christian and three nationals of India are in jail in Uttar Pradesh state, accused of fraudulent conversion attempts while distributing food and other aid to people in need due to COVID-19 lockdown, sources said.

 

Under a new “anti-conversion” law that went into effect in Uttar Pradesh state, India on Nov. 28, police arrested 50-year-old Mi Kyung Lee of Seoul, South Korea and the three others on Dec. 19 in Greater Noida, Gautam Buddh Nagar District, said the aid organizer, Raj Kumar Masih.

 

Masih has organized relief aid to thousands of people since obtaining permission from the Additional District Magistrate on March 23, setting up distribution centers in various areas and at his church site, he said. Among the beneficiaries were Anita Sharma and Muksi Gupta.

 

As Gupta knew who needed aid in her neighborhood, Masih sent two Indian nationals and their driver to her home to prepare a list of people to receive aid, with Lee accompanying them as she needed a lift to reach another location, Masih said. Gupta’s next-door neighbor, Sharma, saw the four people leaving Gupta’s house and reported to police that they had previously offered money to her and Gupta to convert to Christianity, Masih said.

 

Saying that not all of the four people arrested are even Christian, Masih denied that they offered anyone money to convert.

 

“We have proofs of our distribution and names and phone numbers of our beneficiaries, who can testify that we have not asked any of them to change their faith or religion,” Masih told Morning Star News. “All beneficiaries were distributed ration kits, but none were promised any kind of money.”

 

In her police complaint, Sharma alleged that the four had approached her and Gupta during lockdown and invited them to a Malakpur church to receive the free rations offered due to the pandemic. Thereafter, Sharma alleged, the four people began visiting their homes on Saturdays and Sundays, promising them money if they converted.

 

Sharma accused the four people of offering her and Gupta more rations if they removed pictures of Hindu idols from their homes and promising them 1 million rupees (US$13,673) each if they converted to Christianity. She received 7,000 rupees (US$95) and a month’s ration, and Gupta received 3,000 rupees (US$41) and a two-month ration, according to her complaint.

 

Lee, a friend of Masih, was visiting India when the onset of the pandemic obligated her to remain in the country, where she stayed with Korean friends. The other three suspects arrested were Umesh Kumar, the 30-year-old driver, and two women helping with the distribution, identified only as 25-year-old Seema, and 24-year-old Sandhya, who like Kumar is not Christian, Masih said.

 

“Seema visited Muksi Gupta’s house to collect the names of the beneficiaries who would be given the relief,” Masih said. “Muksi knows the people in her area well. The driver had taken Seema there, and Sandhya had accompanied her. It hardly took them five-seven minutes while Seema prepared the list, and when they left Gupta’s home to leave, Anita Sharma the adjacent-door neighbor was watching all of this.”

 

Based on Sharma’s complaint, Surajpur police arrested the four people and registered the district’s first case of the state’s newly enacted Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance, aimed at checking illegal religious conversions.

 

Station Head Officer Pradeep Kumar Tripathi said police registered First Information Report (FIR) No. 0998, charging the four suspects with “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” under the Indian Penal Code. They are also charged under Section 3/5(1) of the newly enacted Uttar Pradesh law of “unlawful conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage.”

 

The four suspects appeared in court on Dec. 20 and were sent to jail, and police confiscated the vehicle they were using, which belongs to Masih.

 

Saying the FIR was completely fabricated, Masih called the arrests a well-planned conspiracy of the Hindu nationalists.

 

“Nobody even bothered to ask the arrested their side of the story,” Masih told Morning Star News. “What is shocking is that the driver, Umesh Kumar, and Sandhya are not even Christians. The local media have falsely reported them all to be Christians.”

 

Sub-Inspector Ram Chandra Singh said the driver and the other two local suspects had all converted to Christianity long ago.

 

“I have done complete investigation, and it is all true,” Singh told Morning Star News.

 

After the arrests, Hindu nationalist groups praised local police. The district branch of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Council of Hindus), along with a radical Hindu group known as the Karni Sena (Karni Army) and others visited and praised the station house officer and his team at the Surajpur police station on Dec. 21.

 

As of Dec. 28, police in Uttar Pradesh had registered 14 cases under the new law and made 51 arrests, of whom 49 were in jail. Of these, the alleged target of fraudulent conversion has filed a complaint in only two cases; the rest of the cases were filed by others, such as relatives.

 

The case in Noida, Gautam Buddh Nagar District, was the first case in Uttar Pradesh where Christians were accused. A second case happened the next day in Azamgarh, where three Christian men were arrested and sent to jail.

 

‘Anti-conversion’ law

 

Uttar Pradesh is the eighth state in India to enforce an anti-conversion law, commonly known as “freedom of religion” acts. Anti-conversion laws are in force in the states of Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand. The states of Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan have passed anti-conversion laws that are not in force for various reasons, and Tamil Nadu has passed and repealed its anti-conversion law.

 

The law was deemed necessary in Uttar Pradesh to counter so-called “Love Jihad,” whereby Muslim men target Hindu women for marriage in order to convert them and reduce the number of Hindus in India. Madhya Pradesh and Haryana states have also declared intentions to enforce similar laws, with the Madhya Pradesh cabinet passing an ordinance on Dec. 26.

 

Uttar Pradesh’s law, with prison terms of up to 10 years, lays the burden of proof on the person accused of having caused or facilitated fraudulent conversion.

 

The new law also requires those seeking to convert and those performing conversion ceremonies to submit intention to do so in advance to the district magistrate. Those seeking to change their religion must submit the declaration no less than 60 days in advance, while the person performing the ceremony is required to give a 30-day notice.

 

Violation of this section calls for imprisonment of six months to three years for the one converting and one to five years for the one performing the ceremony. Conviction would also make the conversion invalid and illegal under the law.

 

After receiving both declarations, the district magistrate must investigate the conversion to determine its intention, purpose and cause.

 

After conversion, within 60 days the convert must send a declaration on a prescribed form to the district magistrate, who will publicly display it on a notice board of his office. The declaration contains the convert’s name, father’s name, husband’s name in the case of a married female convert, permanent address, present address, new and former religion, date and place of conversion, and the nature of the process for conversion.

 

Converts must appear before the district magistrate to verify their identity within 21 days of sending the declaration and confirm its contents. Violating these procedures will make the conversion illegal and void, under the law.

 

If a marriage takes place solely for the purpose of unlawful conversion or vice-versa, it would be declared void.

 

Fraudulent conversions of two or more persons are punishable by three to 10 years of prison and a fine of 50,000 rupees (US$684) or more. Fraudulent conversion of a minor, woman, or person belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe is punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a fine of 25,000 rupees (US$342) or more. Any other fraudulent conversion carries a prison term of one to five years and a fine of 15,000 rupees (US$205) or more.

 

Under the law, each repeat conviction will attract double the punishment specified for the respective offense. All offenses under the law are non-bailable.

 

India ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position has been worse each year since Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014.





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EGYPT: Christians and others arrested for ‘insulting Islam’ on Facebook

Heated Facebook exchange leads to charges against teacher.

 

Morning Star News (23.11.2020) – https://bit.ly/361xJlX – A young Christian teacher in northeastern Egypt is facing charges of insulting Islam after he posted comments on Facebook, according to local reports.

 

Youssef Hany of Ismailia, a city on the Suez Canal 78 miles northeast of Cairo, posted the comments earlier this month in reply to a Muslim who had expressed her opposition to criticisms of Islam by the president of France and other French citizens.

 

Hany was reportedly arrested on Nov. 11, as was a Muslim woman identified only by her Facebook name, Sandosa, for comments on social media allegedly defaming Islam. The next day they were reportedly charged under Article 98(f) of Egypt’s penal code, which outlaws insulting a “heavenly religion,” namely Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

 

Hany and the Muslim woman could face up to five years in prison and a fine of 500 to 1,000 Egyptian pounds (about US$30 to US$60) under a law that calls for a minimum of six months of prison. They were released on bail on Nov. 14, one of the attorneys volunteering to represent them told news outlet Al-Monitor.

 

The attorney, Makarios Lahzy, told Al-Monitor that the charges they are facing are unconstitutional. Egypt’s “blasphemy” law against insulting religion has come under fire for violating the country’s constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and religious freedom. Used almost exclusively against criticisms of Islam, the law is rarely invoked against frequent, public anti-Christian comments.

 

The law has also been criticized for arbitrary use. Lahzy, director of the Minority and Religious Groups department of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, said the law “does not clearly and expressly define contempt of or defamation [of religion] and leaves the notion loose and unreliable.”

 

After Hany’s comments appeared in a heated exchange on Facebook, other social media users circulated the comments, creating a swirl of opposition leading to a Twitter hashtag calling for him to be tried and sentenced with the maximum punishment as an example to others who might criticize Islam, according to online news outlet Al Wafd News.

 

Advocacy group Copts-United pointed out a social media post calling for Hany and others to be killed.

 

“He must be killed,” reads a screenshot of the post. “Someone volunteer, people, we will not continue to debate with a few absent-minded minorities…We will squash them…”

 

While Hany was arrested for allegedly insulting Islam, those who subsequently insulted Christianity and called for Hany to be killed were not detained, Copts-United noted. The group reported that writer Ernest William commented on the arrest of Hany on his Facebook page, asking if Egypt’s blasphemy law applied only to comments critical of Islam.

 

“Did the authorities not see the comments transcending the contempt for Christianity to contempt for Christians and the outright call to kill not only Mr. Hany, but the Copts as a minority, as one of them claimed?” William wrote.

 

After Hany’s post circulated online, an attorney filed a complaint against him and his Facebook page at the district attorney’s office, which also received complaints from other lawyers, leading authorities to investigate and arrest him, according to online new outlet Al Masry Alyoum.

 

Al-Monitor reported last week that Egyptian authorities recently began expanding detention or prosecution of citizens on charges of blasphemy. Ayman Rida Hanna and Mounir Masaad Hanna, a Coptic Christian, were arrested in June 2019 after they discussed Muslim prayer on a video. Referred to criminal trial on Nov. 11, they were held in pre-trial detention since their arrest in spite of repeated calls to release them, their attorney told Al-Monitor.

 

On Nov. 13, young Muslim comic Mohammad Ashraf was reportedly arrested for “insulting Islam and threatening Egyptian family values” during a stand-up comedy routine.

 

Al-Monitor reported that rights activists were working on amendments to Egypt’s blasphemy law that would stop imprisonment of citizens based on comments or sarcastic videos.

 

In addition to the blasphemy law, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Aug. 18, 2018 approved a new law regulating the internet that granted the government broad powers to restrict freedom of expression, violate citizens’ privacy and jail online activists for peaceful speech, according to Human Rights Watch.

 

Supporters of Egypt’s blasphemy law, mostly Islamists and government officials, say the law is meant to dissuade and punish those in Egypt who use religion to instigate “strife and division” or spread “disdain and contempt for any of the revealed religions or the sects belonging thereto.”

 

Rights advocates have said the law needs to distinguish between honest critique of religion and speech explicitly meant to incite violence, but that in any event judges and police would be biased toward Muslims and against Coptic Christians.

 

Human rights activists in Egypt and abroad say that the blasphemy statute violates basic standards of human rights and is most often used to stifle free speech or as a weapon by members of the Sunni Islamic majority to attack religious minorities such as Coptic Christians.

 

Since the Egyptian constitution was passed in 2014 by referendum, there have been numerous, high-profile blasphemy cases filed againist Coptic Christians on charges that were either fabricated or completely false, human rights activists said.

 

Coptic teacher Demyana Abd al-Nour, 27, was sentenced to six months in an Egyptian prison on June 15, 2014 after she lost an appeal of an earlier conviction of violating Article 98(f). Al-Nour originally had been sentenced to pay a fine of 100,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,270), an exorbitant amount that her family could not pay. The judge in the Luxor Court of Appeals, Chancellor Ahmed Abd-Al Maksoud, replaced the fine with the prison sentence.

 

Coptic Christian kidnapped

 

In North Sinai Province, advocates have petitioned the minister of interior to intervene in the kidnapping of Nabil Habashy Salameh, a 61-year-old Coptic Christian businessman responsible for building the only church in Bir al-Abd.

 

The abduction took place on Nov. 8 at 8 p.m., some 50 meters from Nabil’s house. Gunmen pushed Salameh into a car as he was going to a shop and drove away, firing into the air to scare away pedestrians.

 

Copts-United reported the kidnappers drove across town without being intercepted in spite of heightened security as a result of long-time terrorist acts in the area.

 

Egypt ranked 16th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

Photo: Ismailia, Egypt. (Creative Commons, Balou46).


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