Cairo, Egypt — An Egyptian court convicted in absentia 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, womanizer 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 Jan. 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, Fla., 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 U.S. who posted the video clips on his website.
In a telephone interview 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 criticize 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 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.
The connection to the film of the other five sentenced by the court was not immediately clear. They include two who work with Sadek at a radical Coptic group in the U.S. that has called for an independent Coptic state, a priest who hosts TV programs from the U.S. and a lawyer living in Canada who has previously sued the Egyptian state over riots in 2000 that left 21 Christians dead.
In a phone interview, one of the men sentenced who works with Sadek, Fikry Zaklama, said he had nothing to do with the film and hadn't even seen it.
"When I went to look at it (on the Internet), they told me it had been taken down," said Zaklama, 65, a Coptic activist and retired physician who practiced in Jersey City, N.J. "I'm not interested. I'm not a clergyman. I'm a political guy."
Nader Fawzy, a 53-year old jewelry store manager and president of an international Coptic rights organization from Toronto, Canada, said he planned to file a lawsuit against the Egyptian government in Canada for what he said was a wrongful prosecution.
He said he's terrified of being kidnapped and spirited to Egypt. Fawzy, who came to Canada in 2002 from Sweden and lost his Egyptian citizenship in 1992, denied any involvement in the film. He said the Egyptian government has long been out to get him because of his Coptic Christian activism.
"Of course, I'm worried about this death penalty," Fawzy said, adding that the verdict has limited his ability to travel freely. "Who will give me guarantees that the Egyptian government will not try to kidnap me, to take me to Egypt?"
The other person is a woman who converted to Christianity and is a staunch critic of Islam.
The official news agency report said that during the trial, the court reviewed a video of some defendants calling for an independent Coptic state in Egypt, and another of Jones burning the Quran, Islam's holy book. The prosecutor asked for the maximum sentence, accusing those charged of seeking to divide Egypt and incite sedition. All the defendants, except Jones, hold Egyptian nationality, the agency added.
Some Christians and human rights groups worry that prosecutions for insulting religion, which existed to a degree under the secular-leaning regime of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, will increase with the ascent of Islamists to power in Egypt.