(Morning Star News) – Three Christians in Egypt have been accused of showing disdain or contempt for Islam after an evangelism outreach to Muslims over the weekend in the port city of Alexandria, sources said.
The three Christians were arrested on Saturday (July 11) after at least one was stopped for handing out small bags of dried dates and copies of the Sermon on the Mount, according to human rights activists. In addition to the dates, a snack Muslims commonly eat when breaking the Ramadan day-time fast, the bags contained a statement about God’s love and His omniscient nature.
“The Lord knows all that occurs, for He is the mighty knower,” the message read. “He can carry on His shoulders all that is oppressive and exhausting and bring comfort and joy, for He loves you very much.”
The bags also carried the name of an Arabic-language website about Jesus and the Christian faith.
The outreach offended a Muslim who forcibly detained one of the three Christians and took him to a police station, according to a church leader in Alexandria who knows those who were arrested. The Muslim man told the Christian that if police didn’t punish him severely enough, he would seek his own “justice” against him, the church leader said.
The arrests were illegal, said the church leader, who requested anonymity.
“They were just giving out dates during the iftar [fast-breaking evening meal] hour and little booklets with the Sermon on the Mount on them,” he said. “In Egypt there is no such crime as evangelism, and if we look at this as a blasphemy case, there was no blasphemy either. The boys did nothing insulting whatsoever.”
All three were released on a 10,000 Egyptian pound (US$1,280) bond on Monday (July 13), awaiting further investigation by the attorney general’s office or a judge’s decision to either pursue or drop the case. The church leader said the consensus in the Christian community was that the case would be dropped.
Contrary to several media reports, the leader said the three were not beaten in jail. Still, the ordeal was difficult, one of those arrested said on his Facebook account, before the account was removed.
“If someone had been caught with hashish or was drinking alcohol on the street, it would have been easier for them than everything we’ve gone through,” the Christian said.
The names and ages of the three Christians have not been confirmed. One was identified as Stephen Boutros Fayed, and the full names of the other two, said to be Fady and Shady, were not immediately known. They were said to be in their late teens or early 20s, with one possibly being a minor.
After police arrested the Christian distributing literature and dates, he was allowed to call one of his friends. The friend went to the police station on Sunday (July 12) with a third Christian to offer assistance, and the two were promptly arrested and charged with blasphemy as well, sources said.
It was unclear if the two other Christians were involved in the evangelism outreach.
Egypt’s 2014 Constitution guarantees both religious freedom and freedom of expression, but the Constitution is often trumped by the penal code and aggressive, often unfair enforcement of Article 98F. While not strictly a blasphemy statute, Article 98F prohibits acts that show disdain or contempt for “any of the heavenly religions or the sects belonging thereto.” A violation is punishable by detention for a period of not less than six months and not exceeding five years, or paying a fine of not less than 500 Egyptian pounds and not exceeding 1,000 Egyptian pounds.
Ishak Ibrahim, freedom of religion and belief officer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), said the outreach was legal and that the arrest was just another example of the government’s abuse of the law to persecute religious minorities.
“In Egyptian criminal law, there is no crime called ‘evangelism’ or any punishment for it,” Ibrahim said. “But there is a section that considers blasphemy against a ‘heavenly religion’ to be a crime in cases where it threatens the unity of a nation. But in this case, they are being accused of blasphemy. It’s not that they really did blaspheme; it’s a misuse of the law.”
Blasphemy cases have been on the rise since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was sworn into office in 2014. There have been 15 blasphemy cases since January, according to EIPR. The blasphemy cases disproportionately target Christians, but other religious minorities, such as Shia Muslims and Baha’i, have also been charged with actions against a “heavenly religion.”
Keep our Egyptian brothers and sisters in your prayers.