AP News

Egypt frees 2 Coptic boys held for Quran defiling


CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian authorities on Thursday released of two Coptic Christian boys taken into in juvenile detention for allegedly urinating on the Quran, but they will remain under investigation, a security official said.

Even as news spread that the boys would be freed, their village remained tense.

According to priest in the village, located in the province of Beni Suef south of Cairo, local leaders of Gamaa Islamiya — once a prominent militant group — took to mosques, rallying Muslims to rise up against the order to release the boys.

"I don't know why they are inciting people now. Right now, villagers from outside our place are gathering," the priest said, adding, "God help us."

However a neighbor who tried to resolve tension said that Islamists from outside the village came and held a conference in the mosque calling for revenge for insulting the Quran, but security officials intervened and prevented escalation. The priest and the resident spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.

Rights groups say allegations of contempt of religion are on the increase. Many are made against Coptic Christians, showcasing the tenuous position of a minority estimated to make up 8 to 10 percent of the population.

Some of the accusations are made by members of radical Islamist groups, whose political clout has risen since the 2011 popular uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak.

A flurry of criminal investigations in recent weeks comes amid heightened tensions over an anti-Islam film produced in the United States, which sparked protests across the Muslim world.

The most recent case is a rare example of minors being accused of contempt of religion. Local cleric Sheik Gamal Shamardal said residents of the village of Ezbat Marco saw the boys, ages 9 and 10, bring pages of the Quran behind a local mosque and urinate on them.

Police on Tuesday arrested the boys, and a crowd of angry residents gathered outside the police station. Fearing violence, security forces surrounded the village and the boys were taken to a nearby juvenile detention facility.

The neighbor said that the boys are illiterate and could not have recognized the Quran.

"We brought one boy and asked him if he knew this is the Quran. He didn't know it was the Quran. He can't even read or write, like most kids in the village. They are illiterate and even those who go to school don't know how to read. If you bring a Quran, he wouldn't recognize it," he said.

When police officer came at night to take the boys, "we begged him to leave the kids. They can't spend night outside their home. The officer said he feared for their lives and he wanted to keep them with him."

He said a third of the villagers are Christian and the rest are Muslims.

"We visit each other, we are together in weddings, funerals and everything," he said. "We became a target. When anything happens outside, we bear the results."

Father Abdel-Qouddos Hana, deputy of Archbishop Estafanous with whom the boys' village is affiliated, believed that the over-reaction to the boys' action was related to the anti-Islam movie.

"I think this is all about the movie," he said. "We stood by our brothers here in their protests, but some people have bad souls," he said.

Security chief Gen. Attiya Mazrou in Beni Suef province south of Cairo said that authorities ordered the boys to be released after five days in detention, and they were taken to a police station to await their parents.

It was not immediately possible to reach the boys' family for comment.

Seventeen cases of alleged contempt of religion have been filed since the January 2011 uprising, including at least five in recent weeks, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said.

The cases include a Christian teacher in the southern province of Assiut who received six years in prison for posting anti-Islam material on his Facebook page.

A female Coptic teacher in another southern town was also summoned for interrogation last week and detained for a night after her students accused her of speaking offensively about the Prophet Muhammad in class. The teacher was released from detention, but prosecutors are still investigating her, human rights activists said.

A Coptic Christian activist, Alber Saber, is facing trial for posting material on his Facebook page deemed offensive to religion. He was first detained after neighbors complained he had posted the anti-Islam film, but investigators didn't find it. Nonetheless, within days he was put on trial on charges of contempt of religion. His trial began last week.


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