Egypt jails two Scientologists

Cairo, Egypt - Two members of the Church of Scientology are being held by Egyptian authorities under charges of "contempt of religion." They are accused of trying to spread their doctrines "with the aim of sparking riots."

"Contempt of religion" is a charge that has come up increasingly often in Egypt in recent years. Similar accusations have been used against other non-mainstream religious groups or to punish groups whose activities are not illegal.

The Church of Scientology has denied that it had sent people to establish a branch in Egypt, saying that the two were representatives of an Italian publishing firm that sold the works of Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

"We are greatly concerned at their prolonged detention, which appears to be a violation of their right to freedom of expression," said Leisa Goodman, the Church of Scientology's human rights director.

Mahmoud Massarwa, 28, an Israeli citizen of Palestinian origin, and his wife Wafaa Ahmad, 26, were arrested on Dec. 24 on suspicions that they were trying to spread Scientology in Egypt and harm Egypt's two main religions, Islam and Christianity. Proselytizing is illegal in Egypt, where Muslims represent approximately 90 percent of the population and Coptic Christians make up most of the remaining 10 percent.

On Feb. 27, a court in the affluent Cairo suburb of Heliopolis extended for 30 days the custody of Massarwa and Ahmad to allow for further police questioning. According to court sources, they have confessed to investigators that they were sent to spread Scientology's doctrine in Egypt after entering the country on the grounds of establishing an office to promote the publishing firm's interests. In addition, the Middle East News Agency, Egypt's state-owned press agency, reported on Feb. 27 that Ahmad, a Palestinian citizen, had been selected because her nationality "would help win sympathy from the Egyptian people."

The couple are accused of "contempt for monotheistic religions by trying to spread a new religious doctrine, Scientology, that damages the principles of Islam and Christianity." They are also suspected of intending to spread the doctrine "with the aim of spreading riots."

The Church of Scientology has denied the charges.

"They were not official representatives of the Church of Scientology," said Goodman. "They were representing the Italian branch of New Era Publications, which publishes the works of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology."

Goodman said Massarwa and Ahmad were in Egypt to promote Hubbard's book "Dianetics," which she said does not promote any religion or discuss the subject of religion. She also stressed that the Egyptian censorship authorities had authorized the book's entry into the country.

In Egypt, any imported book or other cultural product must first be approved by a censorship bureau. Works that attack religion, feature graphic sexuality or criticize President Hosni Mubarak's government are frequently banned from entering the country.

"Dianetics" is cited, along with other texts by Hubbard, on the Church of Scientology's Web site as an important spiritual underpinning of the religion. International human rights organizations have criticized Egypt for its treatment of Bahais. Between January and April of last year, 17 alleged members of the Bahai faith from the Upper Egyptian governorate of Sohag were arrested and detained without trial. At least 10 of them remain in prison without being granted a trial under charges of debauchery -- including incest.

The Bahai faith, which originated in Iran in the late 19th century, is an offshoot of Islam that is considered heretical to mainstream Islam because it denied that Mohammad is the last prophet sent by God. Bahais often face discrimination in the Islamic world. In February 2001, a U.N. Special Rapporteur noted that in Egypt, "Bahais are not allowed to meet in groups, especially for religious observances, and their literature is destroyed."

In another case, a verdict is expected this week in one of Egypt's State Security Courts -- a parallel system to the normal judicial courts that answers directly to the executive. Six Egyptian nationals are accused of "exploiting religion for extremist ideas with aim of provoking a conflict or of showing scorn or contempt for one of the divinely revealed religions." The case is widely believed to involve no more than a Muslim sect with unorthodox fasting and praying practices.

It isn't only religious groups that are targeted. "Contempt of religion" was also cited as one of the accusations against 52 allegedly homosexual men who were arrested in May 2001 on a floating discotheque on the Nile, the "Queen Boat." The 52 -- 23 of whom were convicted with sentences ranging from one to five years --were also accused of being members of a satanic cult. The religious charges allowed prosecutors to jail the defendants, since homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt.

The Scientology case, like others before it, is unlikely to elicit much public sympathy. Most Egyptians are conservative and the press -- both state-owned and independent -- has a tendency to run articles echoing the state's position. If convicted, Massarwa and Ahmad may face up to five years in jail. Their next hearing for a trial date to be set will take place at the end of March.