Egyptians on Trial Deny Insulting Islam

CAIRO (Reuters) - Twenty-one Egyptians denied charges of offending Islam by setting up a religious group with unconventional Muslim beliefs when their trial began on Wednesday, court sources said.

Seventeen of the accused repeated the Muslim statement of faith -- "There is no God and Mohammad is his prophet" -- before the judge to back their not-guilty pleas. Lawyers for four who have been released on bail delivered their pleas.

The court, which is trying the 17 men and four women under Egypt's emergency laws, which give them no right of appeal, rejected bail requests for the rest of the accused and set the next session date for June 5.

They are charged with "abusing the Islamic religion, propagating extremist ideas with the aim of provoking dissent, and scorning the Islamic religion by advancing ideas and beliefs contrary to fixed religious tenets."

Prosecutors say the group held regular meetings at the home of their leader, Sayed Tolba, a 28-year-old employee of Egypt's Atomic Energy Authority who is accused of claiming to be a modern prophet and to possess miraculous healing abilities.

The alleged worshippers include two students, a government employee, a housewife, a doctor and factory owners in the Cairo working class neighborhood of Shubra al-Kheima, where they were arrested in March.

Mainly Muslim Egypt has tried dozens of people in recent years for holding unorthodox views on Islam, but they have no connection to militant Islamist groups seeking to topple the government of President Hosni Mubarak.