Four Coptic teenagers sentenced to five years in prison for “blasphemy against Islam” have escaped from Egypt, via Turkey, to apply for religious asylum in Switzerland.

They flew out of Istanbul on 1 Sept. under special “humanitarian” visas granted by the Swiss government. Since early April, they had lived in hiding in an Istanbul safe-house arranged by Christian and human rights organisations.

Blasphemy charges were filed against them in April 2015 when a 32-second video clip on a mobile phone was discovered, resulting in a three-day rampage of Muslim rioters against Coptic villagers in their Upper Egypt village of Al-Nasriyah. The clip showed the ethnic Christian boys apparently mocking ritual Muslim prayers.

They were arrested and jailed for nearly two months in an adult prison, where they said they were subjected to harsh treatment. They told Morning Star News that prison guards and inmates beat them, and also tried to force them to convert to Islam.

After they were released on bail, they immediately went into hiding during the following months of trial proceedings against them, fearing ongoing death threats if recognised. But they were quite unprepared to learn the judge’s five-year sentences had been announced against them at the final hearing on 25 Feb., 2016.

“I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it,” one said.

Within the next few weeks, all four of them managed to escape from Egypt into the relative anonymity of Istanbul, where they registered with the UN for refugee status and appeals were launched by Middle East Concern and other agencies to accelerate their asylum applications.