At sundown each day during Ramadan, which ended on 17 July with the Eid-al-Fitr celebrations, observant Muslims customarily broke their fast at their evening iftar meal by eating dates.
A week prior, on the evening of 10 July, 16-year-old Fawzi Osama was on the street in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria, handing out dates to those hurrying home before sundown. In a country that is 90 per cent Muslim, nearly every passer-by was, almost by definition, Muslim.
Osama, however, is a Coptic Christian, and in each small plastic bag of dates he also had included a slip of paper containing a Christian message.
Before the night was over, an offended bystander had stopped Osama and taken him to a nearby police station. The irate Muslim demanded the minor be charged with offending Islam and attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity, according to the Arabic-language news website Al Bawaba.
Madr Masr, a two-year-old independent news website in Cairo, reported that the printed material inside each bag included this message: “The Lord knows all that occurs, for He is the mighty Knower. He can carry on his shoulders all that is oppressive and exhausting and bring comfort and joy, for He loves you very much.”
Madr Masr published what it said was a photo of one of the bags containing the message. The photo, according to Madr Masr, had separately first been posted on Facebook by someone else. The slip of paper included a link to a Christian website with evangelistic content.
Two of Osama’s Christian friends who learned of his predicament hurried to the police station that same evening, only to also be detained.
“Upon arriving to check on my friend Fawzi, the police at the police station took hold of my ID and mobile, and we were likewise detained,” Stephen Botros Fayed, 21, later wrote on his Facebook page. “‘You’re with the dates guy,’ they said, before remanding us two as well in custody.”
The next morning, the prosecution began an investigation into the claims against Osama, Fayed and his other friend, Shady Saeed, 20.
Al-Bawaba reported that the three were referred to prosecutors on suspicion of “defamation of religions and being in pursuit of a modern recourse to evangelism aimed at drawing in Muslims.” The Egyptian penal code calls for up to five years in prison for anyone convicted of an act of religious contempt.
Coptic lawyer Joseph Malak, who was present during the investigation, told World Watch Monitor that once the prosecution officials learned the two friends had not been with Osama, “Stephen and Shady were excluded from the case.”
However, each of the three young Copts were released on 12 July on a bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (about $1275), pending further investigation.
Under Egyptian law, Islam is the country’s official religion, and open proselytising for any other religion can court trouble for “inciting sectarian strife.”
“There is nothing called ‘proselytising’ in the Egyptian penal code,” Malak said. “Fawzi is underage, and he didn’t intend to incite sectarian strife. His situation is good in the case. I expect that he will be acquitted if there is a Court of Misdemeanors hearing for it. Maybe it will be dropped.”
On his Facebook page, Fayed wrote that he and Saeed were not involved with distributing dates or Christian literature with Osama.
“If someone had been caught with hashish or was drinking alcohol on the street, it would have been easier for them than everything we’ve gone through,” Madr Masr quoted him as writing.
Over the past couple of years, young Christians (mainly in Alexandria) have distributed dates during Ramadan.
A representative of the Evangelical Coptic Church, Pastor Refaat Fikri, commented about the incident on the popular Dotmsr news website on 18 July. He was quoted by Mideast Christian News as saying: “What these Christian young people do when they hand out dates to fasting Muslims on the streets is a positive thing, and should continue. This is in itself enough to express the love called for by Jesus Christ in his teachings.
“In order to make facts clear, we must affirm that evangelisation does not mean blasphemy, but it is only preaching the teachings of Christ. Blasphemy means to insult and mock other religions, which is not taught by Christ. Every true Christian does not accept to disdain other religions.”