Ibrahim Zayed, Associated Press
CAIRO — The pale, young Christian woman sat handcuffed in the courtroom, accused of insulting Islam while teaching history of religions to fourth-graders. A team of Islamist lawyers with long beards sang in unison, "All except the Prophet Muhammad."
The case against Dimyana Abdel-Nour in southern Egypt's ancient city of Luxor began when parents of three of her pupils claimed that their children, aged 10, complained their teacher showed disgust when she spoke of Islam in class. According to the parents, Abdel-Nour, 24, told the children that Pope Shenouda, who led the Egyptian Coptic Church until his death last year, was better than the Prophet Muhammad.
Blasphemy charges were not uncommon in Egypt under the now-ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak's regime, but there has been a surge in such cases in recent months, according to rights activists. The trend is widely seen as a reflection of the growing power and confidence of Islamists, particularly the ultraconservative Salafis.
"Salafis are the engineers of these stories," said Abdel-Hamid Hassan, a Muslim and the head of the parents' council at the primary school where Abdel-Nour teaches. Hassan's daughter was among several students who denied any wrongdoing by Abdel-Nour.
"If the pope himself came here from the Vatican and tried to spread Christianity among us, he would fail. We learn about our religion starting from the age of 5," he said, alluding to the allegation against Abdel-Nour, since withdrawn, of "spreading Christianity."
Criminalizing blasphemy was enshrined in the country's Islamist-backed constitution that was adopted in December.
Writers, activists and even a famous television comedian have been accused of blasphemy since then. But Christians seem to be the favorite target of Islamist prosecutors. Their fragile cases — the main basis of the case against Abdel-Nour's case the testimony of children — are greeted with sympathy from courtroom judges with their own religious bias or who fear the wrath of Islamists, according to activists.
The result is a growing number of Egyptians, including many Christians, who have been convicted and sent to prison for blasphemy.
In at least one celebrated case, the offense was clearly provocative: Seven Coptic Christians living in the United States received death sentences in absentia for producing an anti-Islam film that sparked waves of protests by ultraconservative Islamists in front of U.S. embassies across the Arab world on Sept. 11, 2012.
But rights groups say the vast majority of blasphemy cases are merely attempts by Islamists to crack down on their opponents.
"Islamists are using the law to hunt down critics to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Christians are the weakest," said Medhat Klada, a Switzerland-based Coptic Christian activist whose organization Copts United tracks such cases. "The numbers of Christians implicated is unprecedented," he added.
Many believe that restrictions on freedoms are more severe under Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's first freely elected president, than during his predecessor's 29-year reign.
Under Mubarak, "you might have had 50 cases, which means a case or two a year on average, but now you have like 10 cases in a year," said Mamdouh Nakhla, who leads The Word Group for Human Rights and focuses on Christian-related persecution.
Freed Tuesday on nearly $3,000 bail after almost a week in detention, Abdel-Nour is due to stand trial on May 21. Her family refused several requests by The Associated Press to speak to her. Her father, Ebid Abdel-Nour, said: "She is innocent. God be with us. She can't talk because she is in very bad condition."
Emil Nazeer, a Christian activist who visited her, says she is suffering a "nervous breakdown."
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