EGYPT: AUTHORITIES FREE CHRISTIAN HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS
MECA leader and colleague were jailed on spurious charges of ‘insulting Islam.’
CAIRO, November 7 (Compass Direct News) – Egyptian police this week released two Christian rights activists detained for three months.
A host of journalists, lawyers, clergyman, family and friends gathered at the Cairo home of Adel Fawzy Faltas last night to celebrate the acquittal and release on Monday (November 5) of the Egyptian head of the Middle East Christian Association and an associate.
Faltas, 61, and colleague Peter Ezzat, 25, had been held on unsubstantiated charges of insulting Islam and tarnishing Egypt’s reputation abroad. Faltas had conducted an online interview with a controversial convert from Islam to Christianity only days before his arrest on August 8.
Faltas sported a wide grin, shorts and tennis shoes as well-wishers pressed around him at his 8th floor flat. He seemed unbothered that his clothes and other confiscated personal possessions had not yet arrived.
“I was always a free man,” Faltas said over coffee. “When you respect yourself and what you are doing, then you are free.”
Faltas recounted how approximately 30 State Security Investigation (SSI) officers and plainclothes policemen had raided his house at 2:30 p.m. on August 8. He said that the most difficult part of the ordeal was spending the first 14 days in an isolation cell, 1.75 meters in length and three-quarters of a meter in width, with no seat.
Eventually state prosecutor Muhammad al-Faisal ordered that both Faltas and Ezzat be moved to a common cell with some 60 convicted murderers and drug dealers in Cairo’s Tora prison.
“The prosecutor was a good man,” Faltas said. “He ordered them not to return me to an isolation cell, and he always gave me time to meet with my lawyers.”
From his office at New Cairo’s SSI headquarters, al-Faisal renewed the Christians’ detention five times during their three-month jail stay. He never offered a reason for the four 15-day and final 30-day detentions.
For Faltas, one of the most difficult aspects of his imprisonment was missing his daughter’s October 20 wedding in Cairo.
Charges without evidence against Faltas and Ezzat included insulting Islam, posing a threat to national security and tarnishing Egypt’s reputation abroad.
“We never published caricatures of the Quran on our website,” Faltas said, responding to accusations floated by the prosecutor. The MECA Egypt president told Compass that the caricatures had been posted on a site called www.themeca.com, different from the group’s site: www.m-e-c-a.com.
Faltas claimed that their members had traced the fake site’s origin to Saudi Arabia.
Enjoying the reunion with friends and his mother and brother, Ezzat described his arrest and prison experience.
Faltas talking online
“I was at home taking a nap at 2 p.m. when I was awoken by the sound of our front door being broken in,” Ezzat said. “When I opened my bedroom door, I had some 10 soldiers and five officers pointing machine guns in my face.”
Ezzat said that the officers forced him onto the floor, blindfolded his eyes and tied his hands. The soldiers cleaned out his entire room, confiscating his computer, camera, mobile telephones, all CDs and tapes.
“Many times I thought that they were never going to let us go,” said Ezzat, who works on the organization’s website. “Each time that we went to court, they simply renewed our detention without any interrogation.”
At Faltas and Ezzat’s party, group members donned black t-shirts that called for the release of the two men pictured on them. As the evening wore on, everyone gathered around a laptop to hear the activists address members around the globe on the group’s online chat room.
Young people flocked around Ezzat, a shy young man who could not suppress a smile of joy at his new-found freedom.
Keeping Copts Down
Starting work in Egypt only 10 months ago, the Canada-based MECA has unabashedly challenged the government on a number of sensitive topics.
“It’s common for the government to arrest activists from time to time,” MECA spokesman Wagih Yaob said. “It’s a way of keeping the voice of the Copts down.”
In July, MECA lawyers opened a case against the government on behalf of Christians whose village was destroyed in a three-day rampage in January 2000. At least 21 Copts were killed, 18 injured and several hundred homes destroyed when Muslims attacked Christians in the upper Egyptian town of el-Kosheh.
MECA activists were also quick to publicize the case of a Muslim convert to Christianity who is suing the government for the right to change his official documents to reflect the change. Faltas interviewed Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy in an online chat room the weekend before his own arrest. Hegazy has since gone into hiding to escape death threats.
Apostasy is a sensitive issue in Egypt. Many Muslim scholars believe that according to Islamic law, enshrined in the constitution, converts away from Islam merit death.
Stronger Than Ever
“The government thought that if they took out our head, then the rest of us would crumble,” Yaob said. “But the arrest has made us stronger, because now everyone knows about us.”
At last night’s party, MECA gave the appearance of having gained confidence and increased publicity through their members’ imprisonment.
“No one had heard of us before this incident, now everyone knows our name,” a group member said.
Faltas, a retired gynecologist, first met MECA international founder Nader Fawzy in an online chat room discussing human rights in Egypt. “I eventually realized that it’s not a solution to always insult others under a chat room nickname,” Faltas quipped.
Retired from his work and with his grown son and daughter out of the house, Faltas said he began working on starting the MECA in Egypt. The group applied for legal registration in June but has not yet received a definitive response from the government.
Sitting in his flat today, Faltas said he hoped the Egyptian government would treat MECA better once they realize it is working for the country’s good.
“We are the alarm of the country,” Faltas said. “We want to focus a microscope on the problems of human rights and discrimination.”
Across the room on an otherwise bare wall hung a large photograph of Faltas eating dinner with Coptic Orthodox priest Father Zachariah. The controversial cleric has been forced to live outside the country due to widespread outrage over his television program critiquing Islam.