Concerns over Increasing Blasphemy Prosecutions in Egypt, Undermining Rights of Religious Minorities

Washington, D.C. – The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) observes with great concern what appears to be a growing number of blasphemy cases being brought against religious minorities in Egypt. The use of blasphemy laws to target members of certain belief systems violates Egypt’s international human rights obligations to protect the rights of all Egyptians to freedom of belief and expression.

On Tuesday, June 24, 2014, a court in Luxor convicted an Egyptian Coptic Christian of blasphemy charges, sentenced him to six years in prison, and fined him 6,000 EGP. Only the day prior, journalist Bishoy Armia was sentenced by a court in Minya to five years in prison and fined 500 EGP for “inciting sectarian strife.” And just last week, an appeals court in Luxor upheld the conviction of a Coptic Christian teacher who had been accused of blaspheming Islam and proselytizing; Dimyana Abdel-Nour, who reportedly fled Egypt last year and is now living in exile, was sentenced to six months in prison.

According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the number of blasphemy cases has increased in Egypt between 2011 and 2013, raising concerns about the potential implications for freedom of opinion, expression, and religious belief. While the bulk of charges are brought against Sunni Muslims, it is Christians, Shi’a Muslims, and atheists who are most often sentenced to prison terms, according to USCIRF’s findings. With the recent cases of this past week, this condemnable trend appears to be continuing.

The right to freedom of belief is explicitly protected under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a party. In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which assesses states’ compliance with the ICCPR, explained that, with very limited exceptions, blasphemy laws are “incompatible with the [ICCPR]” and may not be applied discriminately against members of certain belief systems. While Egypt’s current leadership has expressed commitment to securing the rights of religious minorities, the 2014 constitution had still been criticized for lacking protections for these marginalized groups.

Blasphemy charges not only diminish the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, and religious belief, but also fuel sectarian rifts. As President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi and his cabinet members undertake to revise Egypt’s human rights law, TIMEP urges the government of Egypt to amend existing laws that impinge upon freedom of belief and expression and to ensure that the right to religious freedom is protected for all citizens.

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The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of democratic transitions in the Middle East through analysis, advocacy, and action.