A police man enters a prison on the outskirts of Egypt’s capital Cairo.

A Coptic Christian has been sentenced to five years in prison for blasphemy, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, or EIPR, which represented him during his trial.

On 29 January the Cairo Economic Court found Marco Gerges guilty of “contempt for Islam”, “exploiting religion in promoting extremist ideas”, and “infringing on the values of the Egyptian family life”, said the rights group.

Gerges, reported to be a ‘private citizen’, was arrested in June 2021 on suspicion of having ‘sexual images’ on his mobile phone that, the prosecutor said, were in “contempt of the Islamic religion”. It’s not clear why or how he came to be arrested.

Other charges, relating to violations of Egypt’s cyber-crime law and using religion to promote extremist thought, were added later without offering Gerges or his defence team an opportunity to respond, said the rights group, which itself is targeted by Egypt’s state security apparatus.

First founded by rights defender Hossam Bahgat in 2002, EIPR has been one the few remaining rights groups functioning in Egypt after the military coup that overthrew the then-president Mohamed Morsi.

Last November, Baghat was fined US$635 by the same court that convicted Gerges for spreading ‘false news’ and defaming the National Election Authority in a 2020 tweet. He had previously won the 2016 Anna Politkovskaya Courageous Journalism prize.

Blasphemy laws

A law banning “insulting the heavenly religions”, criminalising blasphemy, has been repeatedly used to silence Egypt’s religious minorities, according to human rights activists and others critical of the establishment.  Between 2014-2018, the country’s blasphemy laws made Egypt “one of the worst environments for the enforcement of such laws” globally, according to a report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Since the beginning of 2021, there have been at least three similar cases to Gerges’, in which the courts have resorted to “unconstitutional and overbroad laws such as blasphemy or that of the violation of family and social values,” the EIPR said.

“Such [approaches] open the door for misusing these accusations in breaching freedom of expression and thought, belief and creativity,” it added.

Egypt’s score on the 2022 World Watch List of global NGO Open Doors International was four points lower than a year earlier; it dropped to No. 20 from No. 16 in 2021. Even so, this was likely because of the Covid-19 pandemic and not so much a signal that the situation for Egypt’s Christians was improving, its researchers said.

There were fewer reported incidents, particularly attacks against churches, but the level of violence against Christians remained very high, they said. Research showed that during the 12-month reporting period ending 30 Sept. 2021, at least 8 Christians were killed in Egypt and more than 50 attacked because of their faith.