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CAIRO – The pale, young Christian woman sat handcuffed in the courtroom, accused of insulting Islam while teaching history of religions to fourth-graders. A team of Islamist lawyers with long beards sang in unison, "All except the Prophet Muhammad."
The case against Dimyana Abdel-Nour in southern Egypt's ancient city of Luxor began when parents of three of her pupils claimed that their children, aged 10, complained their teacher showed disgust when she spoke of Islam in class. According to the parents, Abdel-Nour, 24, told the children that Pope Shenouda, who led the Egyptian Coptic Church until his death last year, was better than the Prophet Muhammad.
Blasphemy charges were not uncommon in Egypt under the now-ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak's regime, but there has been a surge in such cases in recent months, according to rights activists. The trend is widely seen as a reflection of the growing power and confidence of Islamists, particularly the ultraconservative Salafis.
"Salafis are the engineers of these stories," said Abdel-Hamid Hassan, a Muslim and the head of the parents' council at the primary school where Abdel-Nour teaches. Hassan's daughter was among several students who denied any wrongdoing by Abdel-Nour.
"If the pope himself came here from the Vatican and tried to spread Christianity among us, he would fail. We learn about our religion starting from the age of 5," he said, alluding to the allegation against Abdel-Nour, since withdrawn, of "spreading Christianity."
Criminalizing blasphemy was enshrined in the country's Islamist-backed constitution that was adopted in December.
Writers, activists and even a famous television comedian have been accused of blasphemy since then. But Christians seem to be the favorite target of Islamist prosecutors. Their fragile cases — the main basis of the case against Abdel-Nour's case the testimony of children — are greeted with sympathy from courtroom judges with their own religious bias or who fear the wrath of Islamists, according to activists.
The result is a growing number of Egyptians, including many Christians, who have been convicted and sent to prison for blasphemy.
In at least one celebrated case, the offense was clearly provocative: Seven Coptic Christians living in the United States received death sentences in absentia for producing an anti-Islam film that sparked waves of protests by ultraconservative Islamists in front of U.S. embassies across the Arab world on Sept. 11, 2012.
But rights groups say the vast majority of blasphemy cases are merely attempts by Islamists to crack down on their opponents.
"Islamists are using the law to hunt down critics to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Christians are the weakest," said Medhat Klada, a Switzerland-based Coptic Christian activist whose organization Copts United tracks such cases. "The numbers of Christians implicated is unprecedented," he added.
Many believe that restrictions on freedoms are more severe under Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's first freely elected president, than during his predecessor's 29-year reign.
Under Mubarak, "you might have had 50 cases, which means a case or two a year on average, but now you have like 10 cases in a year," said Mamdouh Nakhla, who leads The Word Group for Human Rights and focuses on Christian-related persecution.
Freed Tuesday on nearly $3,000 bail after almost a week in detention, Abdel-Nour is due to stand trial on May 21. Her family refused several requests by The Associated Press to speak to her. Her father, Ebid Abdel-Nour, said: "She is innocent. God be with us. She can't talk because she is in very bad condition."
Emil Nazeer, a Christian activist who visited her, says she is suffering a "nervous breakdown."
Rights advocates see cases like Abdel-Nour's as politically motivated persecution. They say the verdicts tend to be harsher in southern Egypt, where Islamists are particularly powerful and Muslims are more conservative.
"Any move or word by a Christian is enough to get the rumor mill working," said Amr Ezzat, a prominent researcher in Islamic groups at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). "Rumors quickly spread in villages or the towns where the radar of Islamist activists detect them and turn them into a rallying cry under the pretext that Islam's supremacy is endangered."
Salafis advocate an uncompromising and literal interpretation of the Quran, believing society must mirror the way the prophet and his immediate successors ruled in the 7th century. Some Salafi-based political groups are at odds with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group from which Morsi hails, while others are avid supporters of his government.
Part of the Salafis' antagonism toward Christians is rooted in the belief that they were a protected group under Mubarak's regime while they, the Salafis, were persecuted. Now empowered, they may be out to exact revenge on the Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 90 million people.
The Egyptian Federation for Human Rights, led by former judge Naguib Gibrael, detects a trend in the number of lawsuits and court rulings leveled against Christians and school teachers in particular over the past year.
Gibrael, a lawyer who is representing Abdul-Nour, says it's his 18th case defending Christians — several of them teachers — detained over insulting Islam. He says his 17 other clients received three to six years in prison. They go to appeals courts, hoping for retrials or lighter sentences.
Another rights group, the EIPR, said it chronicled at least 36 blasphemy cases in 2011 and 2012, including more than 10 convictions, and that Christian school teachers were frequent targets.
"Teachers are an easy target," said Gibrael. "Any two students can say anything about their teachers. Islamist teachers collect signatures, and quickly Islamists move a case, then terrorize the court by holding protests and besieging the court building until the judge issues a verdict. I have seen it all," he said.
In Cairo, public figures who have lately faced blasphemy accusations or trials like movie star Adel Imam were all cleared, thanks to media attention, lobbying by rights groups and heavy police presence.
In rural areas, according to EIPR researcher Ishak Ibrahim, even those acquitted or otherwise cleared of blasphemy accusations face social or administrative punishment, with some forced by villagers to leave their homes, pay a fine or get demoted or suspended by their state employers.
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood likes to project itself as a more moderate Islamist group when compared to the ultraconservative Salafis, but they still play a role in the blasphemy cases.
The top Brotherhood leader in Luxor, Abdel-Hamid el-Senoussi, is a lawmaker and the head of the legal team representing the families whose children testified against Abdel-Nour.
He acknowledged that two investigations by the school found no justification for the children's claims, but said he does not trust those findings.
"They just want to avoid discord. But we prefer to get to the bottom of it," he said. "Even if the court clears the teacher and rules that she is innocent, she must be fired from the school."
"There are people who want to mess up with the ship of the nation and this teacher is one of them," he said.
For him, the penalty for contempt of religion is not harsh enough. "I prefer 10 years imprisonment and, in case the judge clears the defendant, a fine that goes toward the upkeep of places of worship."
"Anyone who insults religions must be punished to deter further assaults," he said.
AP writer Haggag Salama contributed to this story from Luxor, Egypt