Egyptian Christian faces trial for handing out Bibles

Arabic Bibles are printed legally in Egypt, but there remain religious freedom concerns.Reuters

A Coptic Christian in Egypt arrested for handing out Bibles will today face a hearing before the prosecution after having his detention extended.

According to the weekly Watani newspaper, Medhat Ishaq was arrested by police on October 6 for giving away Bibles to passers-by and "attempting to persuade people to join the Christian religion." He had nine Bibles in his possession at the time.

The paper reported that Ishaq was accused of "exploiting religion in speech and printed material to promote sedition and harm national unity." According to Daily News Egypt, a charge of "insulting religion" was later added to his case.

Attempting to convert people is not illegal under Egyptian law, and Arabic Bibles are printed legally in the country. However, Christians do face a number of battles for religious freedom. Current legislation dictates that churches cannot be built near schools, villages, railways, residential areas, government offices and canals, among other stipulations, for example.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has pledged to change this, however, and has expressed a desire to end religious intolerance throughout Egypt; calling for a "religious revolution" to tackle extremism. As part of this commitment, he became the first of the country's leaders ever to attend a Coptic Christian Mass on Christmas Eve last year.

The country has recently introduced tough new anti-terrorism laws, which the Catholic Church has welcomed. A senior figure has warned, however, that it is vital that personal freedoms are safeguarded by legislation.

"Recent bomb attacks have shown terrorism is a major problem here, so we really need strong laws to help the police and Interior Ministry combat it," said patriarchal vicar of the Coptic Catholic Church, Fr Hani Bakhoum Kiroulos, in an interview with Catholic News Service.

"But such laws must be applied in ways that protect personal freedoms. Although the Catholic Church does not intervene on specific laws, especially when they're already passed, it will go on repeating this message."

Fr Kiroulos said the Church was concerned for the security of all Egyptians, not just Catholics, and is "satisfied with the steps now being taken."

"The main problem here isn't between Muslims and Christians, but between the Egyptian people and terrorists. The government is already doing much to tackle this, but needs to do more," he added.

President al-Sisi arrived in Moscow on Tuesday for a three-day state visit to Russia, along with a number of Middle Eastern leaders including a delegation from Iran. Taking place during a military showcase, the heads of state will discuss the Syrian crisis, and Iranian officials are expected to finalise negotiations for the purchase of S-300 air defence systems from Russia.