Coptic Blogger in Egypt Released from Prison

Pressured to convert to Islam, falsely accused Christian freed under reformed Emergency Law.

ISTANBUL, August 17 (CDN) — A Coptic Christian blogger arrested in Egypt on false charges of insulting Islam, then held for almost two years without charge under the country’s Emergency Law, has been released from prison.

Hani Nazeer, 31, a high school social worker and blogger was arrested Oct. 3, 2008 in response to a link to a Coptic Web site he placed on his Web log, “The Preacher of Love.” The Coptic Web site had a link to an online copy of “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,” a controversial book written in response to “Azazil,” a novel critical of Christianity.

While the Egyptian author of “Azazil,” Youssef Zeidan, won awards internationally and across the Arab-speaking world for his book, the link to “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca” earned Nazeer one year and nine months in prison. Nazeer said that when he posted the link, he did not know the Coptic Web site had a link to “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,” and that he has never read the book. Nazeer said there is a double standard in Egypt when it comes to any critique of Islam.

During his imprisonment, Nazeer said he was beaten, exposed to constant deprivation and was pressured to convert to Islam by violent criminals.

“One prisoner told me, ‘If you convert, you will be out in two days,’” Nazeer said.

He was released on July 22 because of recent reforms to the Emergency Law.


Riots and Arrest

Nazeer’s Web log was exclusively dedicated to human rights issues and concerns facing Egypt’s ethnic Coptic community. He had previously brought attention to himself by criticizing the ever-increasing Islamization of Egyptian civil society.

Nazeer also singled out leaders in the Coptic Orthodox Church and lamented their involvement in politics. In one post, Nazeer wrote that a gathering of activists at a Coptic church building was inappropriate because church buildings were meant to be venues for prayer, not for politics.

He said that despite the controversy, his real problems started the last week of August 2008 when someone in his village discovered the Web site link, and groups of angry young Muslim men began to riot. A local priest brought some of the rioters to meet with Nazeer in an attempt at reconciliation, to no avail.

“He tried to explain to them that the situation was not as they saw it, and that I was not the one who wrote it, and that my link wasn’t to the story – it was to another site,” Nazeer said. “They were so angry, but some of them understood, and some of them did not understand.”

For the next three days, the youths ripped through Qena, a village in Upper Egypt, protesting in the streets, throwing stones at houses and verbally assaulting Copts. The demonstrations happened during Ramadan, Islam’s most sacred month. It is unclear if any of the teenagers or men were arrested on any charges.

Nazeer went into hiding during the riots, seeking sanctuary in a monastery near Qena. The State Security Investigations unit (SSI), Egypt’s secret police agency, took two of Nazeer’s relatives into custody and aggressively interrogated them to obtain his location. Eventually Nazeer turned himself in so the SSI would release the two men.


Prison Life

For most of Nazeer’s imprisonment, he was housed in a single cell with at least 30 convicted felons. He said prison conditions were much worse there with the violent felons than in other parts of the prison, and he speculated that authorities placed him there to put pressure on him.

Nazeer previously stated through his attorneys that he felt prison guards had organized attempts through prisoners to force him to convert to Islam. He now says he is unsure if attempts at coercion were directed by anyone.

Nazeer said he wasn’t tortured individually, but that on one occasion guards beat him and other prisoners with sticks during a visit by a police major.

The most difficult time of his imprisonment, he said, was the first two weeks. During this time, authorities isolated him and moved him across Egypt from prison to prison. He was also repeatedly interrogated by SSI agents who tried to make him confess to being “Father Utah,” the as yet unidentified author of “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca.” They told him if he didn’t confess, he would never “see the street again.”

“I had no news about my family – I was cut off from everything,” Nazeer said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

An active member of his church for 10 years, Nazir said that before he was arrested his faith was strong, but that being in prison served only to make it stronger. He was able to get a Bible in prison and was even able to discuss Christ with two ethnic Copts who were incarcerated on felony charges.

“I spoke to them about the Christian faith when we were together alone,” Nazeer said.

He credited God for carrying him and his family through his imprisonment.

“There were times in prison that I was happy, and I know that is because God was with me,” he said.


Reform and Release

Nazeer was imprisoned under Egypt’s Emergency Law, passed in 1981 in the wake of the assassination of then-President Anwar Sadat; it allows the SSI to arrest and hold people indefinitely without charge.

In theory, the law was designed to be used to detain terrorists and others who violently opposed the state. In practice, however, it also has been used to silence opposition to President Hosni Mubarak’s regime and to persecute those outside of the religious mainstream – such as Muslims who have converted to Christianity, or members of Islamic groups considered to be heretical.

In 2005, Mubarak promised to let the law expire if re-elected, but in 2008 his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) extended the law for two more years.

Nazeer’s attorney filed motions numerous times to have him released, and 10 times judges ruled in his favor – but each time he was released from Borg El-Arab prison just outside of Alexandria, agents from the SSI, whose legal authority supersedes that of the Egyptian Courts, would take him to a different prison, he said.

“Every time the court would order my release, they would take me either to Alexandria or to Qena prison, and then later on, within a week, they would return me back to Borg El-Arab,” Nazeer said.

In May the NDP extended the law again but amended it to say that only people suspected of committing terrorist acts or of selling illegal narcotics could be arrested. In July, the Interior Ministry ordered that Nazeer be released in accordance with the revised statute.

Azza Taher Matar, a member of the International Relations Unit at the Arabic Center for Human Rights Information, an organization that defended Nazeer, said it is likely that the reforms to the Emergency Law will lead to authorities filing more charges of religious defamation against people in an effort to work around changes to the law.



Ever since his release, Nazeer, who said he was concerned for his safety, has been living in a residence provided by Bishop Kirollos of Nag Hammadi. He said he sees his family daily, and that Kirollos has said he will let him stay with him until he is “sorted out.”

Last October, Nazeer told his attorneys from prison that Kirollos was the priest that urged him to turn himself in to the SSI, promising that he would only be held four days and then released. Instead, Nazeer was prosecuted and sent to Borg El-Arab prison.

Nazeer now says he is unsure what role, if any, Kirollos played regarding his arrest. According to Nazeer, when he turned himself in to police, Kirollos said he would return in one hour, but the SSI took him away from the station.

Nazeer said he doesn’t know exactly what happened, but he added, “A priest should not sacrifice any of his people for any reason.”

He has applied for reappointment to his position as a high school social worker. He also said that despite his imprisonment, he will continue blogging.

Nazeer admits he is concerned about his safety, but that he “feels safe in God’s hands.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Another Copt Killed as Alleged Shooters Plead Not Guilty in Egypt

Coptic carpenter killed outside building that Muslims feared would be used as church.

ISTANBUL, February 16 (CDN) — Three men accused of killing six Coptic worshipers and a security guard pleaded not guilty on Saturday (Feb. 13) as the Coptic community mourned the loss of yet another victim of apparent anti-Christian violence.

The three men allegedly sprayed a crowd with gunfire after a Christmas service in Nag Hammadi on Jan. 6. In addition to the seven that were killed, nine others were wounded. The killings were the worst act of anti-Coptic violence since January 2000, when 20 Copts were killed in sectarian fighting in Al-Kosheh.

Defendants Mohammed al-Kammuni, Qorshi Abul Haggag and Hendawi Sayyed appeared Saturday in an emergency security court in Qena, a city 39 miles (63 kilometers) north of Luxor.

In front of the packed courtroom, the three men said little at the hearing other than to enter their plea before Judge Mohammed Adul Magd, according to one attorney present at the hearing. The men are charged with premeditated murder, public endangerment and damaging property.

Numerous Muslim attorneys volunteered to defend them for free as seven attorneys representing the interests of the victims looked on. The next hearing is set for March 20.

Even as the men entered their pleas, the Coptic community mourned the loss of yet another Christian, this one shot dead by police. On the evening of Feb. 9, Malak Saad, a 25-year-old Coptic carpenter living in Teta in Menoufia Province, was walking outside a meeting hall that police had seized from Christians when he was shot through his chest at close range. He died instantly.

Scant details are known about the shooting. Police surrounded the entire village and closed it to all reporters. In a statement, officials at the Interior Ministry said the Saad was killed by mistake when a bullet discharged while a police guard was cleaning his weapon. The Interior Ministry said the shooter has been detained and will be tried in a military court. Such courts are traditionally closed to the public.

One of Saad’s cousins, who requested anonymity, disputed the Interior Ministry’s version of the incident. He said that the guard had used the bathroom inside the meeting hall and had come outside of the building when he exchanged a few words with Saad and shot him at close range. The bullet went completely through Saad’s chest.

The building in question had been Coptic-owned for 16 years, but two days prior to the shooting, police seized it after a group of Muslims started a rumor that the owners planned to convert the hall into a church building.

Disputes over worship venues are common in Egypt. Copts and other Christians are extremely restricted in opening or even maintaining houses of worship because of complex government statutes. Anti-Christian elements within Egyptian society often use the statutes to harass Christians, Christian leaders said.

Christians Arrested

Following the Jan. 6 shootings, in a move that Christian leaders said was designed to silence the Coptic community’s protests, police began going door to door and arresting Coptic men in their late teens and 20s. Reports vary widely on the numbers of how many men were arrested, but 15 arrests have been confirmed.

Early in the morning of Jan. 8, officers from State Security Intelligence appeared at the home of Tanios Samuel looking for a different house. When officers realized they were at the wrong home, they arrested his brothers, Fady Milad Samuel, 21, and Wael Milad Samuel, 24.

“We are Copts. It is their country, they will do whatever they want,” Tanios Samuel said about the arrests.

He said the government is using his brothers and the others arrested as pawns to silence dissent. He said he lives in fear for himself and his brothers.

“The families are very scared – scared of violence, getting threats all the time,” Samuel said. “All we want is peace.”

Last month’s attack brought widespread outrage across the Coptic community and from human rights groups around the world.

Since his rise to power in 1981, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has avoided classifying any anti-Coptic attack as part of a larger sectarian struggle within the country. His critics however, have long said his policies or lack thereof contribute greatly to the anti-Christian climate within the country.

Although freedom of religion is guaranteed in Egypt’s constitution, Islam is the official state religion. In public schools, the Quran is used to teach Arabic.

On Jan. 21, Mubarak made an uncharacteristically strong statement about the shootings to MENA, the government-run news agency.

“The criminal act in Nag Hammadi has bled the hearts of Egyptians,” he said. “I hasten to affirm that the reasonable people of this nation, and its religious leaders and thinkers … bear the greater responsibility to contain discord and ignorance and blind fanaticism and to confront the despicable sectarian strife that threatens the unity of our society.”

Despite Mubaraks’s comments, the government has characterized the attack as either a random criminal act or as one done in reaction to a November incident in which a 21-year-old Christian man allegedly raped a 12-year-old Muslim girl.

In an interview with BBC Arabic, Dr. Fathi Sourour, head of the Egyptian Parliament, said, “The Nag Hammadi shooting of Christians on Christmas Eve was a single criminal act, with no sectarian dimensions.” He added that the crime was “prompted by the ‘death’ of a Muslim girl as a result of being raped by a Copt.”

Later, commenting on a report about the incident, he described the shootings as “a clash between two brothers living in one home.”

Copts, however, have a starkly different impression of the shooting.

Georgette Qillini, a Coptic member of the Egyptian Parliament, described the attack as “a purely sectarian crime and by no means an individual criminal attack,” the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram reported.

Ibtessam Habib, another Coptic Parliament member, agreed that “sectarian rather than personal motives lie behind the Nag Hammadi attack.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Two Partially Constructed Church Buildings Burned in Indonesia

Outside agitators torch structures; Christians have waited years for building permits.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, January 29 (CDN) — Suspected Islamic extremists burned two church buildings under construction in a village in North Sumatra on Jan. 22.

The attackers came from outside the area to burn the partially constructed buildings of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan Church (HKBP) and the Pentecostal Church (GPdI) in Sibuhuan village, Padang Lawas Residency, during daylight hours, said the Rev. S. Lubis of the HKBP church.

“It was a quiet day when suddenly hundreds of people arrived on motorcycles and burned the empty church,” he said. “After that, the mob moved 200 meters down the road and burned the empty Pentecostal church.”

No people were hurt in the fires. Lubis said that those who burned the church buildings were not from the area.

“We didn’t know any of the mob who burned the church,” he said. “When we asked our neighbors, they didn’t know them either, and they did not help burn the church.”

Lubis said that his church had been worshipping at the site since 1970, and that in 1981 they had erected a simple structure. In 2009 – after local officials had held up an application for a permit to erect a permanent building for five years – the church began construction. Area Muslims stopped the construction before it was finished.

“All this time we never had problems with the local citizens,” Lubis told Compass by telephone. “Outside agitators provoked the local people to reject the church.”

The Rev. Marolop Sinaga, HKBP district pastor for south Tapanuli, told Compass that church officials held a meeting in December with the local Indonesian Muslim Leaders Council and the Padang Lawas government. The Muslim leaders demanded that construction stop because no building permit had been issued.

The church complied and stopped construction, even though the building permit had been in process for five years, Sinaga said. Later local Muslims demanded that church dismantle the parts that had been built, to which the church agreed.

The dismantling of the partial construction began on Jan. 13 but apparently did not proceed fast enough for the mob that gutted the two church buildings, Sinaga said.

The HKBP church in Sibuhuan has 272 members. Members of the congregation have been traumatized and many have fled fearing for their safety, church leaders said.

The Rev. Charles Hutabarat of the Pentecostal Church said his congregation began worshipping in homes in 1990. Having waited three years for their permit to be approved, they were in the middle of their building program, he said.

“Because the local citizens had approved the presence of the church, we were surprised that our church was burned like this,” Hutabarat told Compass.

The head of Padang Lawas Residency, Basyrah Lubis, told Compass that the government will facilitate the granting of building permits for houses of worship.

“We have met with other residency leaders such as the police chief, the military commander, the department of religion officials, and other Padang Lawas leaders, and we have decided to process the building permit applications quickly,” he said. “Also, the two churches will be moved; we are searching for a location which will be free of problems in the future.”

Lubis also said he would guarantee the safety of the congregations.

“In addition, we are going to form an Interfaith Harmony Forum for the residency, because we have never had one previously,” he said. “By Feb. 15, this forum will be established. In the meantime, the two congregations will hold services in member homes.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Coptic Blogger in Egypt Threatens Hunger Strike

Authorities deny Christian’s application for release.

ISTANBUL, November 9 (CDN) — A Coptic Christian blogger in Egypt held in prison for more than a year without charge said today he will go on a hunger strike unless authorities grant his next application for release.

Hani Nazeer, a 28-year-old high school social worker from Qena, Egypt and author of the blog “Karz El Hob,” received word today that his latest application for release, sent to the Ministry of the Interior a week ago, was denied. His attorneys said they would re-apply for his release tomorrow.

The interior ministry did not “supply the grounds for refusal” according to Rawda Ahamad, Nazeer’s lead defense attorney.

“He has no charges against him,” Ahamad said. “He is not a criminal. He must be released immediately. He’s an innocent man – anyone exposed to this severe injustice would do the same.”

On Oct. 3, 2008, Nazeer was arrested by Egypt’s State Security Investigations (SSI) and sent to Burj Al-Arab prison. Although police never charged him with any crime, Nazeer has been detained for more than a year under Egypt’s administrative imprisonment law.

Nazeer ran afoul of SSI officers a few days before his arrest when a group of local teenagers visited his website and clicked on a link to an online copy of “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,” a novel written under the pseudonym “Father Utah.” The book is a response to “Azazil,” a novel by Yusuf Zidane, critical of Christianity.

Insulting religion is illegal in Egypt, but the law is enforced unequally. Zidane’s critique of Christianity garnered him fame and awards throughout the Arab world. Nazeer’s website link cost him his freedom, despite the fact that police have never publicly produced any evidence linking Nazeer to Utah’s work. After Nazeer was arrested, posts continued on Utah’s website.

Nazeer has reported to his attorneys that he has been placed in prison with felons, some of them violent. He also claims that prison authorities have pressured him to convert to Islam.

Gamel Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, the group representing Nazeer, stood by his client’s accusations, saying police have urged inmates to suggest to Nazeer that officers would work to free him if he were to convert to Islam.

Nazeer’s situation is complicated by the fact that his writings upset both Islamic authorities and the hierarchy of the Coptic Orthodox Church. On one hand, he criticized the increasing Islamization of Egyptian civil society. On the other, he lamented the political involvement of the Coptic Orthodox Church. In one post, Nazeer wrote that a gathering of activists at a Coptic church was inappropriate because churches were meant to be venues for prayer, not for politics.

According to Eid, Nazeer was arrested with the complicity of leaders in the Coptic Orthodox Church. In October of 2008, police detained Nazeer’s relatives at a police station and threatened to hold them until he came out of hiding. Nazeer turned himself into the police station on the advice of Bishop Kirollos of Nag Hammadi, Nazeer reported to his attorneys. Kirollos assured Nazeer he would be detained no more than four days and then be released.

Kirollos had denounced Nazeer to security, Nazeer told his attorneys.

All attempts to reach Kirollos about his alleged involvement in Nazeer’s arrest were unsuccessful. Several attempts to reach Bishop Anba Yoannes, authorized to speak about the case on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s Pope Shenouda III, were also unsuccessful. Egypt’s SSI, a political police force run by the Interior minister, routinely declines to comment on cases.

This week’s application will be sent to a court within the Ministry of the Interior. But under the emergency law, police officials have the power to ignore court orders. When local police execute a court order to release prisoners held under Egypt’s emergency law, security police commonly re-arrest them minutes later.

The law, enacted after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, allows authorities to hold people without charge. Eid estimated that there are approximately 14,000 people imprisoned under this law. In 2005, while running for re-election, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised to replace the contested law. But in May of 2008, the Egyptian government extended the law for two more years.

Mamdouh Nakhla, an attorney and civil rights activist in Egypt, said oppression of Coptic Christians is common and that many police officers in Egypt are the “agents of persecution.” At best, he said, they are complicit in acts of persecution. At worst, he added, police collude with others hostile to Christianity.

“They give green lights to Islamists, and protect them, and give them the feeling that they are immune from prosecution,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News


One other Christian, victim of assault, remains hospitalized.

ISTANBUL, August 20 (Compass Direct News) – Two Coptic Christians in Egypt have been arrested and are being held without charge after reporting to police they had been beaten by a mob, an attorney for the men said yesterday.

On the evening of July 31, Reda Hnein, 35, his brother Nagi Hnein Fawzi, 27, and their uncle Youssef Fawzi Iskandar, 58, all Coptic farmers, were leading a cow down a road in the village of Al-Fashn when the attack happened. Al-Fashn is about 87 miles (140 kilometers) south of Cairo along the Nile River in the state of Minya.

During the trip, two Muslim men riding a motorbike crashed into the cow. An argument ensued, and a mob of about 10 other Muslim men joined into the disagreement and began beating the Copts with sticks, said Ihab Ramzi, an attorney representing the three Coptic men.

Reda Hnein and Iskandar received minor injuries. Fawzi, however, suffered a fractured skull and lacerations on his scalp. He was taken to Minya University Hospital, where he regained consciousness earlier this week but remains hospitalized, according to his family.

On the day of the incident, Hnein and Iskandar went to police to file a complaint. They were told to return the next day to file a report with an investigating attorney. But after they gave their report the next day, local police arrested the two men on orders of Egypt’s State Security Investigations, a political police force run by the Interior minister.

The men were not charged with any crime. They were told they were arrested for “security reasons,” a euphemism commonly used under Egypt’s longstanding Emergency Law. The law, enacted after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, allows authorities to hold people without charge. Hnein and Iskandar are being held at Abu Zabal prison, according to a cousin.

The cousin added that no contact with the two men has been allowed. The family found out the whereabouts of the men only through a third party.

The cousin, whose name was withheld for safety reasons, said she is “boiling” with anger. “How can the police turn an innocent victim into a criminal?” she said. “How can they treat a victim like a criminal? It is most unfair.”

Despite several attempts, state law enforcement officials in Al-Fashn could not be contacted for comment.

All three men were congregants of a local Coptic church. Attorney Ramzi said that hostility toward Copts is common in the state of Minya.

This month’s arrest is one in a recent spate of incidents in the area. Earlier this summer, two Copts were arrested for allegedly setting fire to their own house church, despite eyewitness accounts of other men drenching the building with kerosene. On June 6, Muslim mobs attacked a building in Ezbet Boushra-East because they suspected it would be converted into a Christian worship place. On July 3, the same thing happened at a building in Ezbet Guirgis Bey.

This month’s incident, however, “exceeded all expectations,” Ramzi said. “The victims are being treated as criminals,” he said, adding that incidents like the one in Al Fashn will only encourage more violence.

“The Muslims will know that if they attack Christians, they will not be arrested,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News