Three Christian high school students will stand trial for blasphemy in Egypt Thursday on charges that they insulted Islam, after a video of the students emerged in which they allegedly mock Muslim prayers.
If found guilty, the three teenagers could face up to five years in a juvenile detention center for violating the country’s strict blasphemy law.
The 30-second video shows one the boys reciting Muslim prayers while another behind him laughs, as well as parodies of the students slitting each other’s throats. The boys’ teacher reportedly filmed the video in a hotel room during an overnight trip, shortly after Islamic State militants slaughtered 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya last February.
The three high schoolers are to appear in court in the southern city of Minya. According to the boys’ lawyer, Maher Naguib, their teacher, who is also Christian, will stand trial under the same charges and faces a prison sentence if convicted.
Naguib downplayed the significance of the video, calling it the result of a “random and spontaneous action by some youngsters” that lasted “for only few seconds.”
The lawyer also said that the boys already face serious retaliation from the local community because of the video, and have had to hide out in their homes “to avoid insults, beating and harassment.”
The video reportedly came to light in April 2015, after which angry Muslims called for the expulsion of the students and the teacher from their village. At that time, officials detained the boys, and ordered the teacher and his family to leave the village.
Others have come out in defense of the boys’ actions, such as Mina Thabet, a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, who claims that the teenagers’ behavior was harmless.
“They are some kids who decided to have fun in a private place,” Thabet said. “They were on a trip with their teacher, but somehow rumor got out that they’d thrown down the Quran, and had insulted Islam, so that led to their arrests.”
Thabet suggested that the boys did not intend to insult Muslims, and took the occasion to advocate for greater freedom of speech in Egypt.
“They use some words that are used in Muslim prayers, but they are in no way being disrespectful to Islam,” she said, “and even if they were, they should have the right to free speech—but in Egypt we have this law.”
In December, leaders of Egypt’s Coptic community attended a UN minority rights forum in Geneva, where they condemned the country’s blasphemy law. Medhat Kelada, head of the European Coptic Organizations Union, claimed that the law has been “badly exploited against the Copts.”
Father Mina Adel, a priest at the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria, said that most Christians in Egypt live in fear. “Not a few are leaving – for America, Canada and Australia. Dozens of families from this church alone are trying to go, too,” he said.
Christians make up some 10 percent of Egypt’s population. Despite assurances of fair treatment from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt continues to see a rash of blasphemy charges, mostly against Christians, though Muslims have come under fire as well for advocating free speech.
On Tuesday, an Egyptian court upheld a one-year jail sentence for Muslim researcher Islam Al Behery convicted of blasphemy for a television program in which he questioned the credibility of some widely accepted sources of the Prophet Mohammad’s sayings.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome