A blasphemy trial against a Christian teacher in this Egyptian city renowned for its Pharaonic monuments is among a wave of cases that have Egyptian Christians worried they can be jailed for insulting Islam on the flimsiest of evidence.
Dozens of lawyers crowded a small, hot courtroom yesterday, eager to participate in the case against Dimyana Abdel Nour, a primary school teacher from a village near Luxor. Three students accused her of insulting Islam while teaching a social studies class last month. Such blasphemy cases have become much more frequent since the 2011 uprising that brought Islamists to power in Egypt.
Ms. Abdel Nour is now in hiding, and did not attend the court hearing. Her lawyers and local activists say the case is unjust, and local Christians are watching the proceedings with worry. They say the Islamists' rise to power, including the election of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, has encouraged extremists to discriminate against Egyptian Christians, known as Copts, who make up around 10 percent of the population.
To them, Abdel Nour's case is an example of an increasingly grim reality.
“This case is not just about Dimyana,” says Sarabamon El Shayeb, head of the All Saints Monastery in the village of Tud, near Abdel Nour's family home. "It's about organized repression of the Copts. The Islamists are giving out the accusations of blasphemy generously and openly, mostly against Christians.”
Blasphemy cases occurred under former president Hosni Mubarak too, but they have increased since the uprising that toppled him. Egypt's new constitution, drafted last year by an Islamist-led committee, criminalizes blasphemy, bolstering a pre-existing law against insulting religions. Rights groups say blasphemy laws restrict freedom of expression and are often used against minorities, but most Egyptians support such laws.
From 2011 to 2012, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) tallied 36 accusations of blasphemy that were dealt with extra-legally, sometimes with village residents forcing the accused Christians to leave their village. In Cairo, several cases against prominent figures ended in acquittals. But in southern Egypt, where Luxor is located, all recent cases that have gone to trial have ended in convictions, according to EIPR. Throughout Egypt, most cases are brought against Christians.
EIPR's Ishak Ibrahim says there were six blasphemy convictions in the last two years in Upper Egypt (as southern Egypt is called because of the direction the Nile flows). 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.
Abdel Nour began working as a substitute teacher at the Naga El Sheikh Sultan primary school in April. Soon after she started, three students accused her of insulting Islam during a social studies lesson. They say she put her hands to her throat while mentioning Islam, as if she wanted to vomit, and then said that the late Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III was better than the Prophet Mohamed.
Mostafa Mekki, the school principal, says he conducted an immediate investigation. According to his handwritten report, he questioned all students in her class, and all but the three who originally accused her denied the accusations.
Speaking in his home in the small village where the controversy began, Mr. Mekki calls the parents of all three children who accused her “extremists.” At least one of them is known for inciting sectarian strife in the past, he says. The principal said the parents were not happy with Abdel Nour, partly because she wore jeans instead of skirts, and didn't cover her hair.
Mekki decided that the accusations against Abdel Nour were unfounded, but he canceled her temporary contract at the school anyway to calm tensions. He thought this would take care of the matter, he says. But the parents were not satisfied, and they complained to officials above Mekki. He was removed from his post as principal and transferred to an administrative job.
Mekki, who is Muslim, continues to defend Abdel Nour, despite losing his position and facing intense scrutiny himself. "If I wanted to please anyone, I would say she said it, and they would carry me on their shoulders," he says. Local Christian activists said yesterday that he received threats because of his stance.
The public prosecutor soon filed charges against Abdel Nour for insulting Islam and inciting sectarian strife. She was imprisoned for nearly a week before she was released on $2,862 bail, which her lawyers say is an extravagant sum for this type of case. In a recent similar blasphemy case in Cairo, bail was set at less than $150. In that case, however, the defendant fled before he was convicted and sentenced.
Tharwat Bakhet Eysa, one of Abdel Nour's lawyers, says the prosecutor questioned the three students who accused her, but did not question the 10 who denied the accusations.
'Class-A sectarian case'
But where Abdel Nour's lawyers see irregularities, those on the other side say the case is solid. One of the lawyers pressing the case against Abdel Nour is Abdel Hamid Senoussi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader in Luxor and former member of parliament with the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. He said Mekki's investigation was flawed, and that the principal declared Abdel Nour innocent simply to end the crisis.
"The law says we should punish whoever commits blasphemy," he says. The consequences of not taking such accusations to court are “fatal,” he adds. “It leads to tension within society. That creates dissatisfaction with the parents, which leads to violence.”
He is convinced of Abdel Nour's guilt after reviewing the prosecutor's investigation and talking to the families of the accusers, he said. “When the principal delayed the matter, the kids were crying because of it and because of the insult to the prophet,” he said. “Children do not lie. They don't make up stories.”
Mr. Senoussi says he would prefer the case to end in reconciliation instead of punishment, with Abdel Nour admitting guilt and apologizing.
The father of one of the students who accused Abdel Nour of blasphemy, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says he is also 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 memorization.
Speaking to the Monitor yesterday, he said that the day after the alleged blasphemy, the children were upset about the incident, calling Abdel Nour “Dabbana,” which means “fly,” in a play on her given name Dimyana.
He and Senoussi say the case has nothing to do with tensions between Christians and Muslims. “We have good relations with Christians,” Senoussi says.
But Christians in Luxor and 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,” says Safwat Samaan Yasaa, a local rights activist.
El Shayeb, the head of the All Saints Monastery, calls Abdel Nour's trial a “class-A sectarian case.”
“It's a huge mistake to take this out of its sectarian context,” he says.
The night before the trial, he wore the black robes and black embroidered cap of Coptic priests as he sat in the ancient monastery. A heavy silver cross hung on a chain around his neck. “Today, despite this repression, we can live. But tomorrow, what will we do? The coming days will be much worse.”