BEIRUT

Middle East

Egypt frees 2 Coptic boys held for Quran defiling

FILE - Egyptian Christians attend mass at Abassaiya cathedral in Cairo October 3, 2012. (REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

CAIRO: Egyptian authorities on Thursday released two Coptic Christian boys taken into in juvenile detention for allegedly urinating on the Quran, but they will remain under investigation, a security official said.

Even as news spread that the boys would be freed, their village remained tense.

According to priest in the village, located in the province of Beni Suef south of Cairo, local leaders of Gamaa Islamiya - once a prominent militant group - took to mosques, rallying Muslims to rise up against the order to release the boys.

"I don't know why they are inciting people now. Right now, villagers from outside our place are gathering," the priest said, adding, "God help us." The priest spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Rights groups say allegations of contempt of religion are on the increase. Many are made against Coptic Christians, showcasing the tenuous position of a minority estimated to make up 8 to 10 percent of the population.

Some of the accusations are made by members of radical Islamist groups, whose political clout has risen since the 2011 popular uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak.

A flurry of criminal investigations in recent weeks comes amid heightened tensions over an anti-Islam film produced in the United States, which sparked protests across the Muslim world.

The most recent case is a rare example of minors being accused of contempt of religion. Local cleric Sheik Gamal Shamardal said residents of the village of Ezbat Marco saw the boys, ages 9 and 10, bring pages of the Quran behind a local mosque and urinate on them.

Police on Tuesday arrested the boys, and a crowd of angry residents gathered outside the police station. Fearing violence, security forces surrounded the village and the boys were taken to a nearby juvenile detention facility.

Security chief Gen. Attiya Mazrou in Beni Suef province south of Cairo said that authorities ordered the boys to be released the next day, and they were taken to a police station to await their parents.

It was not immediately possible to reach the boys' family for comment.

Seventeen cases of alleged contempt of religion have been filed since the January 2011 uprising, including at least five in recent weeks, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said.

The cases include a Christian teacher in the southern province of Assiut who received six years in prison for posting anti-Islam material on his Facebook page.

A female Coptic teacher in another southern town was also summoned for interrogation last week and detained for a night after her students accused her of speaking offensively about the Prophet Muhammad in class. The teacher was released from detention, but prosecutors are still investigating her, human rights activists said.

A Coptic Christian activist, Alber Saber, is facing trial for posting material on his Facebook page deemed offensive to religion. He was first detained after neighbors complained he had posted the anti-Islam film, but investigators didn't find it. Nonetheless, within days he was put on trial on charges of contempt of religion. His trial began last week.

 

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