An Egyptian court convicted in absentia on Wednesday seven Egyptian Coptic Christians and a Florida-based American pastor, sentencing them to death on charges linked to an anti-Islam film that had sparked riots in parts of the Muslim world.
The case was seen as largely symbolic because the defendants, most of whom live in the United States, are all outside Egypt and are thus unlikely to ever face the sentence. The charges were brought in September during a wave of public outrage in Egypt over the amateur film, which was produced by an Egyptian-American Copt.
The low-budget “Innocence of Muslims,” parts of which were made available online, portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, womaniser and buffoon.
Egypt’s official news agency said the court found the defendants guilty of harming national unity, insulting and publicly attacking Islam and spreading false information – charges that carry the death sentence.
Maximum sentences are common in cases tried in absentia in Egypt. Capital punishment decisions are reviewed by the country’s chief religious authority, who must approve or reject the sentence. A final verdict is scheduled on January 29.
The man behind the film, Mark Basseley Youssef, was among those convicted. He was sentenced in a California court earlier this month to one year in federal prison for probation violations in an unrelated matter. Youssef, 55, admitted that he had used several false names in violation of his probation order and obtained a driver’s license under a false name. He was on probation for a bank fraud case.
Multiple calls to Youssef’s attorney in Southern California, Steve Seiden, were not returned Wednesday.
Florida-based Terry Jones, another of those sentenced, is the pastor of Dove World Outreach, a church of less than 50 members in Gainesville, Florida, not far from the University of Florida. He has said he was contacted by the filmmaker to promote the film, as well as Morris Sadek, a conservative Coptic Christian in the US who posted the video clips on his website.
In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Jones said the ruling “shows the true face of Islam” – one that he views as intolerant of dissent and opposed to basic freedoms of speech and religion.
“We can speak out here in America,” Jones said. “That freedom means that we criticise government leadership, religion even at times. Islam is not a religion that tolerates any type of criticism.”
In a statement sent to The Associated Press on Wednesday, Sadek, who fled Egypt 10 years ago and is now a Coptic activist living in Chantilly, Virginia., denied any role in the creation, production or financing of the film.
He said the verdict “shows the world that the Muslim Brotherhood regime wants to shut up all the Coptic activists, so no one can demand Copts’ rights in Egypt.”
Coptic Christians make up most of Egypt’s Christian minority, around 10 percent of the country’s 83 million. They complain of state discrimination. Violent clashes break out occasionally over land disputes, worshipping rights and love affairs between Muslims and Christians.