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.
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
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
Christian critical of Islamization of society, Orthodox church jailed without charges.
ISTANBUL, October 31 (CDN) — A Coptic Christian blogger in Egypt entering his second year of prison without charge is being pressured to convert to Islam in exchange for his freedom, his attorneys said.
On Oct. 3, 2008, Hani Nazeer, a 28-year-old high school social worker from Qena, Egypt and author of the blog “Karz El Hob” (“Love Cherries”), 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.
Gamel Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the group representing Nazeer, said Nazeer was arrested unfairly and now is being coerced to abandon his faith.
“Hani complains about that, it happened, and it’s true,” said Eid. “But the police do it in a subtle way. They do it by inspiring the inmates to suggest to Nazeer that if he converts to Islam, police will work to get him out of prison.”
Nazeer is confined in what is commonly known as the “general population” area of the prison, meaning he is housed with both violent and non-violent felons. Nazeer told his attorneys he is often treated harshly. Despite this, Eid said Nazeer is constant in his faith.
A few days before his arrest, on Oct. 1, 2008, a group of young Muslims in Nag Hammadi saw 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 critical of Christianity by Yusuf Zidane that is famous in Egypt.
While Zidane’s critique of Christianity garnered him awards throughout the Arab world, locals protested the link to Utah’s site.
Insulting religion is considered a crime in Egypt, although typically the law is only enforced when Islam is criticized. Police have not publicly produced any evidence linking Nazeer to Utah’s work. After Nazeer was arrested, posts continued on Utah’s website. It is unclear if the teenagers who saw Nazeer’s website and were offended were students at his school.
Eid said the deeper issue was that Nazeer upset Islamic authorities by criticizing the increasing Islamization of Egyptian civil society and irked church leaders by lamenting political involvement of the Coptic Orthodox Church. In one post, Nazeer wrote said that a gathering of activists at a Coptic church was inappropriate because churches were meant to be venues for prayer, not for politics.
Police had detained Nazeer’s relatives at a police station and threatened to hold them until he came out of hiding, Eid said, and Nazeer turned himself into a police station in October 2008 – 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. According to Nazeer and the ANHRI, the bishop colluded with authorities to get rid of Nazeer, whose online criticism had become bothersome.
“[Kirollos] is the one who turned me in after he denounced me to security,” Nazeer told his attorneys. “He bluffed [that] we were going for a short investigation and it will be all over. Then I found out it was a charade to turn me in to state security.”
Eid claimed the arrest achieved two complementary goals for police and Kirollos – calming those protesting “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,” and silencing a blogger who had been critical of Islamic hardliners and the Coptic Orthodox Church.
All attempts to reach Kirollos 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.
Release Orders Invalidated
Nazeer’s attorneys are set to appeal his imprisonment on Sunday (Nov. 1), but it is unclear how or even if the appeal will affect his case. Courts have ordered Nazeer’s release several times before. The SSI has rendered the orders for release invalid by invoking the country’s longstanding emergency law, which supersedes court authority.
When local police execute a court order to release prisoners held under the 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.
Eid said Nazeer’s case is extremely difficult.
“Hani is in between the hate of the Islamists and the hate of the Christians,” he said. “The Islamists of course are against him, and the church [leadership] is against him, so he’s being badly squeezed between the two.”
Kalldas Fakhry Girgis, Nazeer’s cousin, saw him 15 days ago. Girgis said that despite Nazeer’s confinement, he is in good spirits. He remains strong in his faith and his convictions.
“He wants to know why he’s been arrested,” Girgis said about his cousin. “He’s hopeful. His morale is high. But he is feeling stressed.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Two Christian sisters battle to regain religious identity following forgery charges.
ISTANBUL, October 10 (Compass Direct News) – An Egyptian Coptic Christian woman has been sentenced to three years in prison for failing to uphold her Islamic identity – an identity she didn’t know she had for over four decades.
Sisters Shadia and Bahia Nagy El-Sisi, both in their late 40s and residents of the small east Delta town Mit-Ghamr, were arrested and tried for claiming their official religious identity as Christian. Unknown to them, their religious identity officially changed 46 years ago due to their father’s brief conversion to Islam. Both are illiterate.
Shadia El-Sisi was tried for stating her religion as Christian on her marriage certificate and sentenced to three years in prison on Nov. 21, 2007. She was released two months later. Last Sept. 23 a judge also sentenced Bahia El-Sisi to three years in prison for “forging” her marriage certificate by stating her religion as Christian.
Their father, Nagy El-Sisi, converted to Islam in 1962 during a brief marital dispute in order to divorce his wife and potentially gain custody of his daughters, the sisters’ lawyer Peter Ramses told Compass.
Egyptian law is influenced by Islamic jurisprudence (sharia), which automatically awards child custody to whichever parent has the “superior” religion and dictates “no jurisdiction of a non-Muslim over a Muslim.”
If Bahia El-Sisi’s identity as a Muslim stands, then her religious status could potentially create a domino effect that would require her husband to convert to Islam or have their marriage nullified. Her children, too, would be registered as Muslims. Both women are married to Christians.
“All of their children and grandchildren would be registered as Muslims,” Ramses said. “[The ruling] would affect many people.”
Other sources said it is too soon to determine the fate of the sisters’ marriages and families, as neither of their cases have been finalized.
‘But I Am a Christian’
A few years after his conversion, Nagy El-Sisi returned to his family and Christianity. He sought the help of a Muslim employee in the Civil Registration Office, Ramadan Muhammad Hussein, who agreed to forge his Christian identification documents. Reversion back to Christianity for converts to Islam has been nearly impossible in Egyptian courts.
The daughters discovered they were still registered as Muslims when Hussein was arrested for forgery in 1996 and confessed he had helped El-Sisi obtain fake documents three decades earlier. El-Sisi was later arrested.
When the two daughters visited him in prison, they were detained and accused of forging their Christian identification documents, according to national weekly Watani. A criminal court gave them each a three-year prison sentence in absentia in 2000.
Shadia El-Sisi was arrested in August 2007, three days before her son’s wedding. Her first hearing was on Nov. 21, 2007 at the Shobra El-Khema criminal court; she asserted that she had no idea of her so-called conversion to Islam. Judge Hadar Tobla Hossan sentenced her to three years in prison.
Confronted with the sentence, Shadia El-Sisi kept repeating, “But I am a Christian. I am a Christian,” according to Watani.
She was in prison until Jan. 13, when Prosecutor-General Abdel Meged Mahmood retracted the sentence because she was unaware of her conversion by proxy and due to legal technicalities that voided incriminating evidence.
The advocacy group Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination also pressured the judiciary through a signature drive to release her from prison.
Bahia El-Sisi went into hiding following her sister’s imprisonment, but came out after news of her release. Legal experts believe that when Bahia El-Sisi’s case comes before the Supreme Court, her sentence will be retracted as her sister’s was, as their cases have no legal foundation.
Early in the morning of May 5, however, police arrested Bahia El-Sisi and held her in jail until her hearing on July 20, after which she was released pending the verdict.
On Sept. 23 she was sentenced to three years in prison for “forgery of an official document,” as her marriage license states her religion as “Christian.” Bahia El-Sisi was married years before learning of her father’s brief conversion.
Ramses will appeal to Egypt’s Supreme Court in next week. He said he worries the case could further erode the precarious situation of religious minorities in the Muslim-majority country of 79 million.
“How can the government say to [someone] who has lived 50 years in a Christian way that they must become a Muslim and their children must be Muslim and their whole family must all be Muslims?” he said. “This is very important for the freedom of religion.”
Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of belief and practice for the country’s Christian minority, which makes up 10 percent of the population. Islam, however, is the official state religion and heavily influences the government and court system.
The case is an example of the social pressure put on Egyptian non-Muslims to convert when one of their parents embraces Islam, despite the constitution guaranteeing equality, said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Watani.
“This is a sick environment that we struggle to change,” Sidhom stated. “According to what is taking place here freedom is protected and provided for Christians to convert to Islam while the opposite is not provided.”
Egyptian courts have continued to discriminate against Christians who have one Muslim parent, according to human rights reports, as the judiciary gives them no choice but to convert to Islam.
On Sept. 24 an Alexandria court awarded custody of 14-year-old Christian twins to their Muslim father even though the twins said they were Christians who wanted to stay with their mother. Egyptian civil law grants child custody to their mothers until the age of 15.
Report from Compass Direct News