ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) - A Coptic Christian blogger in Egypt entering his second year of prison without charge is being pressured to convert to Islam in exchange for his freedom, his attorneys said.
On Oct. 3, 2008, Hani Nazeer, a 28-year-old high school social worker from Qena, Egypt and author of the blog "Karz El Hob" ("Love Cherries"), was arrested by Egypt's State Security Investigations (SSI) and sent to Burj Al-Arab prison. Although police never charged him with any crime, Nazeer has been detained for more than a year under Egypt's administrative imprisonment law.
Gamel Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the group representing Nazeer, said Nazeer was arrested unfairly and now is being coerced to abandon his faith.
"Hani complains about that, it happened, and it's true," said Eid. "But the police do it in a subtle way. They do it by inspiring the inmates to suggest to Nazeer that if he converts to Islam, police will work to get him out of prison."
Nazeer is confined in what is commonly known as the "general population" area of the prison, meaning he is housed with both violent and non-violent felons. Nazeer told his attorneys he is often treated harshly. Despite this, Eid said Nazeer is constant in his faith.
A few days before his arrest, on Oct. 1, 2008, a group of young Muslims in Nag Hammadi saw his website and clicked on a link to an online copy of "Azazil's Goat in Mecca," a novel written under the pseudonym "Father Utah." The book is a response to "Azazil," a novel critical of Christianity by Yusuf Zidane that is famous in Egypt.
While Zidane's critique of Christianity garnered him awards throughout the Arab world, locals protested the link to Utah's site.
Insulting religion is considered a crime in Egypt, although typically the law is only enforced when Islam is criticized. Police have not publicly produced any evidence linking Nazeer to Utah's work. After Nazeer was arrested, posts continued on Utah's website. It is unclear if the teenagers who saw Nazeer's website and were offended were students at his school.
Eid said the deeper issue was that Nazeer upset Islamic authorities by criticizing the increasing Islamization of Egyptian civil society and irked church leaders by lamenting political involvement of the Coptic Orthodox Church. In one post, Nazeer wrote said that a gathering of activists at a Coptic church was inappropriate because churches were meant to be venues for prayer, not for politics.
Police had detained Nazeer's relatives at a police station and threatened to hold them until he came out of hiding, Eid said, and Nazeer turned himself into a police station in October 2008 – on the advice of Bishop Kirollos of Nag Hammadi, Nazeer reported to his attorneys.
Kirollos assured Nazeer he would be detained no more than four days and then be released. According to Nazeer and the ANHRI, the bishop colluded with authorities to get rid of Nazeer, whose online criticism had become bothersome.
"[Kirollos] is the one who turned me in after he denounced me to security," Nazeer told his attorneys. "He bluffed [that] we were going for a short investigation and it will be all over. Then I found out it was a charade to turn me in to state security."
Eid claimed the arrest achieved two complementary goals for police and Kirollos – calming those protesting "Azazil's Goat in Mecca," and silencing a blogger who had been critical of Islamic hardliners and the Coptic Orthodox Church.
All attempts to reach Kirollos were unsuccessful. Several attempts to reach Bishop Anba Yoannes, authorized to speak about the case on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox Church's Pope Shenouda III, were also unsuccessful. Egypt's SSI, a political police force run by the Interior minister, routinely declines to comment on cases.
Release Orders Invalidated
Nazeer's attorneys are set to appeal his imprisonment on Sunday (Nov. 1), but it is unclear how or even if the appeal will affect his case. Courts have ordered Nazeer's release several times before. The SSI has rendered the orders for release invalid by invoking the country's longstanding emergency law, which supersedes court authority.
When local police execute a court order to release prisoners held under the emergency law, security police commonly re-arrest them minutes later. The law, enacted after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, allows authorities to hold people without charge. Eid estimated that there are approximately 14,000 people imprisoned under this law.
Eid said Nazeer's case is extremely difficult.
"Hani is in between the hate of the Islamists and the hate of the Christians," he said. "The Islamists of course are against him, and the church [leadership] is against him, so he's being badly squeezed between the two."
Kalldas Fakhry Girgis, Nazeer's cousin, saw him 15 days ago. Girgis said that despite Nazeer's confinement, he is in good spirits. He remains strong in his faith and his convictions.
"He wants to know why he's been arrested," Girgis said about his cousin. "He's hopeful. His morale is high. But he is feeling stressed."