CAIRO, Egypt — Egyptian prosecutors referred to trial Tuesday a well-known radical Islamist who tore up an English copy of the Bible during a protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo against an anti-Islam film produced in the United States.
The case against Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah is a rare example of Egypt’s blasphemy laws — often condemned by rights groups as restrictive of freedom— used against someone who allegedly insulted a religion other than Islam.
Abdullah, also known as Abu Islam, was filmed during a protest outside the embassy two weeks ago as he stood before the crowd and ripped up the holy book. “Next time I will urinate on it,” he says in another video. Both videos were posted online.
The subject of the protest, the film “Innocence of Muslims,” has enraged many Muslims for its portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a child molester. At least 51 people, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, have been killed in violence linked to protests over the film, which also has renewed debate over freedom of expression in the Middle East, U.S. and in Europe.
Contempt towards “heavenly” religions — a term usually taken to include Christianity, Islam, and Judaism — is punishable by up to five years in Egypt. But lawyers and rights groups say the definition of contempt of religion is vague and has been used frequently against critics of Islam only, not other faiths.
In the wake of the anti-Islam video, many clerics and politicians in Egypt have called for an international law criminalizing contempt for religion. Egypt’s new government, headed by Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, may be under pressure to show that it is applying Egypt’s contempt law evenhandedly.
Critics say the recent moves are a retreat from freedoms gained during the uprising against Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
The contempt of religion laws were also used under Mubarak.
A prosecution official said Abdullah’s son and a journalist who interviewed him afterward were also referred to trial. The official spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Abdullah is known for having put together a new Islamic TV channel that is run primarily by women veiled from head to toe, with only their eyes showing. He is a frequent guest on other television channels.
He told The Associated Press he is not guilty of contempt to religion because he targeted the book of a specific group of Christians who have offended Islam.
“I had always wished to go to court to explain to the world that there is no such thing as the Bible. Every church in the West has its own holy book,” he said.
He said his trial begins Sept. 30. The other two defendants could not immediately be reached for comment.
Another Egyptian, a Coptic Christian who had questioned both Islam and Christianity on his social networking pages, has also been referred to trial, which begins Wednesday, on charges of contempt to religion. Alber Saber was originally arrested in the wake of the anger of the offensive film, and accused of sharing it online.
The prosecutors didn’t find the film on his web pages, but still prosecuted him for contempt. Another Coptic Christian was sentenced to six years in prison last week for insulting Islam and the president on his Facebook page.
“There seems to be a direction toward restricting freedoms,” said Ahmed Ezzat, a human rights lawyer who is defending Saber.