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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.
Books related to Islam must be approved by clerics at al-Azhar university, a top religious authority for Sunnis.
In the same way, Coptic Church elders scrutinize books about Christianity, but Ziedan's novel was not vetted because it was considered a popular rather than spiritual tome, one Coptic church leader said.
But Mamdouh Ramzi, a Coptic lawyer who is among the group that have complained about Ziedan, said the novel is offensive to Christians.
"He insulted priests and bishops and said many things with no proof or evidence from books or history ... He is not a Christian man, what does he know about the Church?" Ramzi asked.
The case, joined by Coptic groups in the United States, the Netherlands, Canada and Austria, reflects broader complaints by Copts that they are marginalized in mainly Muslim Egypt.
"... we should receive attention from the authorities or we will start to wonder why the law does not respond unless the matter includes an insult to Islam," Ramzi said.
Christians account for about 10 percent of Egypt's 78 million people. Sectarian violence is not common, but disputes occasionally break out over issues involving land or women, prompting complaints by Copts that the government does too little to protect them for fear of Islamist reprisals.
The case presents Mubarak's government, which fought a low-scale Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, with a dilemma, said Gamal Eid, who heads the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
On the one hand, it wants to avoid criticism from Christian groups abroad and so is under pressure to act; on the other, it does not want to jail a writer at a time of human rights scrutiny before elections this year and next.
"This case has become politicized, so any outcome is possible," Eid said.
Mubarak, who turned 82 this week, has not yet said whether he will run for a sixth term in the 2011 presidential vote.
Editing by Missy Ryan and Tim Pearce