Teacher's blasphemy case underlines dangers for Egypt's Christians

(Photo: Reuters / Yannis Behrakis)Egyptian Coptic Christians hold pictures of other Coptic Christians killed recently during sectarian violence in Egypt, during a protest in Athens April 12, 2013. Hundreds of Egyptians living in Greece marched through Athens to protest against sectarian tension following days of fighting in Egypt killing eight - the worst sectarian strife since Islamist President Mohamed Mursi was elected in June - many Copts now question whether they have a future in Egypt.

A teacher's arrest for comments made in her classroom has triggered protests that Egypt is disproportionately prosecuting Christians for violations of the country's blasphemy laws.

Dimyana Abdel Nour, 24, was accused of insulting Islam by three of her students, in the age range of 10, during a social studies class soon after she began working as a substitute teacher at a primary school in April.

Despite being cleared by her principal of any wrongdoing, the public prosecutor filed charges against her for insulting Islam and inciting sectarian strife.

The action was taken after parents of the students who accused Abdel Nour complained.

Some reports also said the young teacher had been accused of spreading Christianity.

Her principal, a Muslim, has been dismissed from his position at the school, located in a village near the ancient city of Luxor.

There are various accounts of what happened in Abdel Nour's class, but the three students say their teacher put her hands to her throat while mentioning Islam, as if she was vomiting.

The Christian Science Monitor reported Abdel Nour had indicated that deceased Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III was better than Prophet Muhammad according to her accusers.

The teacher was jailed on May 8 and released on bail on May 14.

Her bail of 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,863) was excessive for her type of case, say her lawyers.

A court hearing will determine if the case against Abdel Nour moves forward.

The new Egyptian constitution, approved in December following the Muslim Brotherhood's ascent, bans blasphemy.

Although there were blasphemy laws under former President Hosni Mubarak, the new Islamic-backed constitution strengthens the ban on criticizing Islam.

The Washington Post noted in covering Abdel Nour's case that that ultra-conservative Salafis, an Islamic sect, are at the heart of the blasphemy laws.

The Post also noted that Christians seem to be the favorite target of Islamic prosecutors.

Although Coptic Christians are only about 10 percent of the Egyptian population, they comprised 41 percent of the blasphemy cases brought in Egypt from January, 2011 to December 2012, a report noted in Christianity Today (CT).

The study was conducted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

Ishak Ibrahim, freedom of religion and belief officer for EIPR, said that the blasphemy laws are being used as a weapon against Christians.

Not only are the laws being used disproportionately against Copts, said Ibrahim, but the punishments for those convicted are also harsher than the norm.

Immediately after Nour's arrest, Amnesty International denounced her detention. It called for her release.

Local believers in the Luxor region are concerned.

"This case is not just about Dimyana," said Archbishop Sarabamon El Shayeb, head of the monastery in Abdel-Nour's village in CSM. "It's about organized repression of the Copts.

"The Islamists are giving out the accusations of blasphemy generously and openly, mostly against Christians."

Safwat Samaan Yasaa, a local rights activist was quoted as saying in the CSM, "All Coptic teachers are scared here now that any child that fights with them could accuse them of blasphemy and drag them to court."

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