Coptic teacher cleared of contempt of religion for questions about Muhammad

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Beni Suef Courts Complex (World Watch Monitor)
Beni Suef Courts Complex (World Watch Monitor)

A Coptic teacher has been found not guilty of contempt of religion, after he was charged last month for including wordplays in a set of questions about Islam’s prophet, Muhammad.

During the hearing on 19 April, both the headmaster of the school and a local MP defended the teacher, Magdy Farag Samir, saying he had a “good reputation and good manners” and that “he did not mean to insult”.

Following the verdict, local Coptic priest Armia Abdou Bebawy told World Watch Monitor: “We thank the Egyptian judiciary for not discriminating between citizens. This case has boosted cohesion and community peace.”

He added that Copts “appreciate, respect and cherish everyone’s faith”.

Why was he charged?

Samir, 49, a teacher of social studies at Barot Preparatory School for Girls in Beni Suef Governorate, had asked his students: “Where was the prophet Muhammad born?” He then suggested three options: 1. Yathrib (in Saudi Arabia). 2. Mecca (also in Saudi Arabia) 3. Hafiza Abo Tartour (Abo Tartour is a village in Egypt, but also the word for a cone hat).

He also asked: “Who was the nurse of the prophet Muhammad?” The two options were: 1. Halima Al-Saadia (the correct answer). 2. Halima Bta’at El ta’amiya (“Bta’at El ta’amiya” translates as “a seller of falafel”, a Middle Eastern dish).

“The students and their parents considered this as an insult to the prophet Muhammad and Islam,” said a relative of the teacher, who did not wish to be named, “But Magdy didn’t mean any kind of insult, he did that just to facilitate the right answers to the two questions.”

Beni Suef's Directorate of Education received an official complaint against Magdy Samir for his alleged blasphemy (World Watch Monitor)
Beni Suef’s Directorate of Education received an official complaint against Magdy Samir for his alleged blasphemy (World Watch Monitor)

Samir was forced to transfer to a different school following the incident, which took place in December, but the parents of his former students also submitted a formal complaint against him to the governorate’s Directorate of Education, which was then sent to the Public Prosecution Office for investigation.

On 14 March, Samir was arrested and charged with contempt of religion. He was initially detained for four days, but a day later his detention was extended to 15 days, pending investigation.

‘Crimes of contempt in Egypt only refer to contempt of Islam’

“The revolution of June 2013 was supposed to get rid of the religious regime,” a human rights activist from Minya, who also did not wish to be named, told World Watch Monitor, “But this has not been achieved so far. Many Copts are being charged with contempt of religion and jailed for nothing … because the revolution dropped the Muslim Brotherhood but left their ideology unchanged.”

“Egypt’s law of contempt of religion only applies to one side – Islam,” he added. “Crimes of contempt in Egypt only refer to contempt of Islam.”

A Coptic lawyer from Beni Suef, who again wished to remain anonymous, told World Watch Monitor: “The judicial system has recently discriminated against Copts and perpetrated injustice. Copts face judicial discrimination most blatantly in prosecutions for blasphemy.”

Convictions for contempt of religion are “harsh” against Copts, said another Coptic lawyer, from Cairo. “The accused person is charged with several offences, such as ‘provoking sectarian strife’ and ‘contempt of religion’. This is done in order to increase the term of their incarceration,” he said.

“People accused of contempt of Islam are not only sanctioned by the courts but also ostracised by their community, who force Copts to leave their homes,” the lawyer added, saying extremist Muslims play a significant role in cases of contempt of Islam filed against Christians – by assembling in front of courts to put pressure on judges.

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