Four Coptic teenagers awaiting appeal on charges of insulting Islam arrived in Switzerland last Thursday, after months of living in self-imposed exile in Turkey.
They were sentenced to five years in prison in February for video footage in which prosecutors claimed the boys defamed Islam. After spending nearly two months in detention, where the teenagers reported being beaten and coerced to convert to Islam, they were released on bail pending appeal. They went into hiding after seeking help from the Coptic Church and being turned away.
Daniel Hoffman, Director of Middle East Concern (MEC), told Mada Masr the teenagers were granted a humanitarian visa to Switzerland. While they had applied for refugee status, Hoffman said the decision was made by MEC and various other NGOs to seek an alternative route, because it could easily take up to five years for the United Nations to process their request.
“Refugees often live in difficult circumstances. We felt that given their young age and the fact that they were on their own, we should do what we could to find a solution outside of the UN process,” Hoffman explains. Three of the teenagers — Albir Shehata, Moller Yasa and Bassem Younan — are 17 years old, and the fourth — Klenton Faragalla — is 18 years old.
The video surfaced in April last year, and reportedly shows one of the teenagers performing prayers, while another is briefly seen drawing his hand across the boy’s neck mimicking a knife. The video was taken by their teacher, who was also arrested and later banished from their hometown of Nasreyah, the Morning Star news reported.
According to an interview that the newspaper conducted with the teenagers, the teacher was filming a dormitory full of Coptic boys, and the four who were arrested said they were merely trying to get his attention, although media reports claimed the teenagers had been mocking the Islamic State.
The video sparked violence in Nasreyah, with many Coptic Christian homes vandalized and pressure reportedly put on the families to turn them over to security forces. The teenagers and their teacher were arrested in April 2015 and the whereabouts of the teacher are currently unknown.
According to Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher focusing on freedom of religion at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), it is common Church policy to refuse to interfere in matters of the state, particularly when a Christian has committed an offense. The Church is also resigned to accept unfair conditions for reconciliation on the pretext that sacrificing a few for the sake of the wider Coptic community is acceptable.
Under Article 98f of the Egyptian Penal Code it is forbidden to insult one of the “heavenly religions,” namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While in theory this article also guarantees Christians and Jews protection from slander and blasphemy, the law is rarely enacted in this way. Ibrahim points to the extreme double standards in the application of the law, adding that the attacks on Coptic Christians and insults against Christianity in the aftermath of this incident were completely overlooked. “Security forces were lenient with those who threatened Christians, yet they were very harsh on the Coptic young men until they drove them out of the country,” he adds.
According to Hoffman, Christians in Egypt do not want to become a protected “minority,” but rather want to be recognized and treated as Egyptian citizens with the same rights and duties as non-Christian Egyptians. A repeal of the law regarding insulting religion, he argues, would prevent it from being misused, not only against Christians, but also against other minority groups, such as liberal Muslims, atheists, Shia Muslims and others. An impartial judiciary would also be necessary, particularly in Upper Egypt where judges frequently rule against defendants in such cases based on their own religious convictions or due to pressure from local communities.
“Another important measure would be the end of impunity for incitement to violence against Christians and other religious communities, and an end to impunity for acts of violence” Hoffman says, adding, “A long-term campaign against religious discrimination should be started through the media and education, to instill values of tolerance and equal treatment regardless of one’s religion.”