Following the one-year prison sentence issued late Monday against Islamic researcher Islam Behery, criticism against the verdict has been raised on social media, with several prominent figures calling for his release, possibly by way of presidential pardon.
Egypt's office of the prosecutor-general set 4 January for a court session to hear an appeal filed by Behery's lawyer, Saied Gamil.
Gamil said in a phone call to the CBC channel that he will file a formal complaint, as his client was previously acquitted on the same charge, which was filed against him several times by different individuals.
On Tuesday, an appeal court reduced an earlier five-year sentence against Behery over charges of “contempt of religion” to one year in prison in connection with the content of his now-suspended TV programme.
Behery stirred controversy by questioning the credibility of some otherwise widely accepted sources of the Prophet Muhammad's sayings, a prime source of Islamic jurisprudence. For Muslims, the Prophet Mohammed's sayings are second only to the Quran in understanding the religion.
Many critics say the verdict against Behery is an infringement on free thought and freedom of expression.
Calls for Behery's release
A petition has been launched calling for the release of Behery, with several well-known figures adding their voices to his defence.
Egyptian director and member of parliament Khaled Youssef wrote on his official Facebook page Wednesday that this issue extends beyond the imprisonment of Behery.
Youssef said that this era, which should be one of enlightenment and development, is being tainted with ignorance and underdevelopment.
He also questioned how the government can ask the youth to think and innovate while at the same time jailing people like Behery.
TV Host Ibrahim Issa said that it is up to the president to issue a pardon, adding that Article 71of the constitution protects the right of Egyptians to freedom of thought and expression.
Al-Azhar vs Behery
Behery, who is known for questioning the credibility of some of the sources of the Prophet Mohammed's sayings, has said that scholars are human and their texts should be dealt with as such. He argued on his TV show which aired on Al-Qahera Wal Nas in 2014-2015 that when these scholarly interpretations are harsh, for instance when calling for capital punishment, then they should be approached just as harshly.
Earlier in April, Egypt's Al-Azhar, the Sunni world's leading religious authority, filed a complaint to the General Body for Investment and Free Zones requesting TV channels not air Behery's show. A warning was later sent by the authority to Al-Qahera Wal Nas, the channel that airs his show.
Al-Azhar charged that Beheiry's show deliberately makes people question what is "certain in religion" and "threatens social peace." Al-Azhar also accused the show of "stirring sectarian strife."
Behery has refuted Al-Azhar's accusations, insisting that his critique of secondary sources of the Prophet's sayings does not amount to contempt of religion, adding that his aim was to renew religious discourse and reclaim the soul of Islam which had been distorted by fundamentalist interpretaions.
The controversy surrounding Behery comes in the same year that saw Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi's repeatedly call on Al-Azhar’s religious scholars to foment a "religious revolution" in the understanding of Islamic texts to counter the ideas of "extremists."
The president said on more than one occasion that extremist ideas were causing "worry, danger and destruction to the whole world."
"Religious discourse will not be fixed overnight. [But] it requires enlightened effort from enlightened scholars," El-Sisi told Al-Azhar scholars earlier in the year.
Freedom of expression in Egypt
Behery's case is not the only high-profile incident involving the question of freedom of expression recently to cause controversy in Egypt.
Egyptian writer Fatma Naoot is also on trial on charges of "disdaining religion," after she criticised the Muslim Eid Al-Adha tradition of slaughtering sheep as "unethical." She has since apologised for her remarks.
Egyptian prosecutors also recently referred two journalists to criminal court for publishing a "sexually flagrant article" in the state-owned cultural newspaper Akhbar Al-Adab last year. That decision caused an outcry among many who considered it a violation of freedom of expression.