Egypt Christians want action on "insulting" novel

Wed May 5, 2010 12:59pm EDT
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By Yasmine Saleh

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian Christians have called for government action against the author of a widely read novel they say insults Christianity, in an unusual case that puts freedom of expression in Muslim-majority Egypt under fresh scrutiny.

Government investigators are looking into the complaint filed by a group of Egyptian and some foreign Copts against Youssef Ziedan, a Muslim who wrote the 2008 award-winning novel Azazeel (Beelzebub).

Egyptian law prohibits insults against Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and Ziedan could be sent to jail for up to five years if prosecuted and found guilty.

"They accuse me of insulting Christianity ... It's a serious crime and this is a big shock to people, especially since the novel has been so successful," Ziedan said.

Azazeel, which won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, backed by the Booker Prize Foundation, tells the story of a 5th-century Egyptian monk who witnesses debates over doctrine between early Christians.

During President Hosni Mubarak's 29 years in power, the government has tolerated little political dissent and has over time adopted selective censorship of films, books and other media seen as risque or challenging to Islam.

In 1995 an Egyptian sharia court declared Egyptian intellectual Nasr Abu Zayd an apostate from Islam over his liberal, critical approach to Islamic teaching. His marriage was annulled and he was effectively forced into exile.