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MPs, Justice Ministry face off over contempt of religion article

Members of Parliament and the Justice Ministry are going head-to-head over Article 98 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes contempt of religion, as some MPs push to void the article on the grounds that it violates freedom of expression.

On Sunday night, members of the parliamentary legislative committee drafted a legal memo to send to Al-Azhar, Dar al-Ifta and the Coptic Church to bring them into the debate over the contentious article.

Article 98(f) states that ridiculing the Abrahamic faiths and the propagation of atheism in words, writing or other means is punishable by sentences of up to five years in prison and/or fines of up to LE1,000.

Several voices have emerged in Parliament opposing the article, with around 100 MPs submitting a request to the parliamentary speaker to annul it.

Chief among them is MP Amna Nosseir, who described the article as “elusive” and in opposition to freedom of expression. Nosseir further argued that the article violates Sharia, maintaining that the Quran upholds principles of freedom, reported Parlmany, a website dedicated to parliamentary news coverage.

Other MPs including Nadia Henry, Ihab al-Khouly and Suzy Nashed said the article is one of the most decisive obstacles to freedom of expression in Egyptian law, maintaining that it has been misused and selectively implemented.

The Justice Ministry has been pushing back against the MPs’ efforts. At a meeting with Parliament’s legislative committee on Sunday, ministry official Ayman Rakha made a distinction between freedom of expression and contempt of religion. He defended the courts and prosecutors who handle such cases, saying they abide by legal regulations, and carefully investigate the matter in consultation with religious institutions.

The courts have recently handed down a spate of prison sentences in widely publicized contempt of religion cases brought against public figures.

In May 2015, a misdemeanor court sentenced Islamic researcher and TV preacher Islam al-Beheiry to five years in prison for contempt of the Islamic religion. His sentenced was reduced the following December to one year, after which he was immediately sent to Tora Prison.

Al-Azhar and a group of lawyers had filed two lawsuits against Beheiry amid mounting controversy over his TV show “With Islam,” aired on the privately owned channel Al-Qahera wal Nas, in which he disseminated religious views that run counter to the core beliefs propagated by Al-Azhar.

In January 2016, poet, journalist and ex-parliamentary candidate Fatima Naoot was sentenced to three years in prison and fined LE20,000 under the same article for an October 2014 Facebook post criticizing the ritual sacrifice of animals during Eid al-Adha. 

A year prior, a man was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of LE1,000 for making “anti-religious” posts on Facebook.

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