Egypt court upholds jail for man convicted of defaming Islam

AP News
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Posted: Dec 29, 2015 1:09 PM

CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court confirmed a prison term for a former TV host who was convicted of "defaming religious symbols" and Muslim scholars after he called for removal of what he called extremist material in texts of religious interpretation and heritage.

A court of appeals reduced Islam Behery's prison term to one year from a five-year sentence issued by the initial court. Behery's lawyer, Gamil Said, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he plans to challenge the verdict, which was issued Monday night.

Behery, a researcher on Islamic heritage, had hosted a TV program on a private channel discussing religious texts and he was a vocal advocate for religious reforms. He argued often that some texts of interpretation by historic Islamic scholars — including ones upheld and revered by Al-Azhar, the pre-eminent seat of Sunni scholarship — contain passages that promote extremism. He said such texts need to be reviewed and that in some cases, passages from historic texts need to be discarded.

His comments, as well as criticisms of Al-Azhar, raised heavy controversy, and individuals filed complaints to the state prosecutors, who pursued the charges against him. The station took his show off the air in April.

Said argued that Behery did not deny any texts from the Quran itself, Islam's holy book, but instead focused on the works of scholars interpreting it at different periods of history.

"The Holy Quran itself calls for logical thought," the lawyer said. "It is not prohibited for any person to discuss the scholars' opinions, because it is not possible for an opinion that was stated 700 or 800 years ago on a specific issue to be implemented on an issue after all these years."

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has called for a "revolution" in Islam to purge extremism, but he has also underlined that state institutions, including Al-Azhar, are to lead any reforms in religious teaching in a way that doesn't disturb the public. Al-Azhar has focused mainly on purging schools of books by modern figures from the Muslim Brotherhood, the more than 80-year-old fundamentalist group, and formerly Egypt's most organized opposition political force. El-Sissi's government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and has been waging a heavy crackdown against it since the military removed a Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Morsi, from the presidency following massive protests against him in 2013.