The Egyptian Inquisition


— By: Alexandra Kinias —

The hopes of 24 years old school teacher Demiana Abdel-Nour to return home from self-exile were postponed indefinitely, on June 16, 2014, when the Egyptian appeals court upheld a blasphemy conviction against her and sentenced her to six months in prison, in addition to the earlier ruling that only imposed a fine of LE 100,000. Among the many challenges taking place in Egypt, the developments in Abdel-Nour’s case were sidelined by most Egyptian media.

The young teachers’ nightmare started in May 2013, when parents of three of her pupils, accused her of insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad by saying that the late Pope Shenouda III performed more miracles than the Prophet. They also alleged that she placed her hand on her stomach to convey nausea when mentioning the Prophet. These accusations were entirely based on the testimony of the three students, all under the age of ten. Abdel-Nour denied all allegations, and the school administration as well as the confessions of ten other students acknowledged that there was no truth to any of those claims. Yet on filing the charges, the young teacher was immediately arrested and thrown in jail, pending investigations of the charges.

Two weeks into her arrest and after going on a hunger strike Abdel-Nour was released on LE 20,000 bail. Soon after she fled to France, in fear of the consequences, after the court refused her defense request to admit witnesses and reports demonstrating her innocence. And according to her lawyer, she was mentally preparing herself to seek asylum in France if the courts ruled against her, which is exactly what happened.

The incident of Abdel-Nour is not an isolated one, but another in the long strand of events that target the Coptic minorities and affirms that the religious intolerance is steadily increasing. It is only predictable that this phenomenon that has grown roots in the society will eventually become a trait in the absence of the supervision of civil institutions. However, what came as a disappointment was that this verdict was the first after the new constitution has promised equality and freedom of religion to all Egyptians.

Defamation of religion is a phenomenon that is practiced in societies where religious extremism is rooted. In such societies, zealots condemn, prosecute and kill those who speak out against their faith, while giving themselves the license to do and say the exact same against other religions. With the rise of conservatism, Egypt is aggressively following in the footsteps of countries that have been labeled among the worse in freedom of religion. And while it didn’t come as a surprise what the young teacher had to go through, I somehow had hoped for a miracle that would reverse the heritage of long decades of ignorance and intolerance, forgetting that magic wands are only used in fairy-tales.

Abdel-Nour’s case reminded me of the Spanish-American movie “Goya’s Ghosts” by Milos Forman that took place during the time of the Spanish inquisition where Muslims and Jews were prosecuted for practicing their faith. Ines, a young catholic woman, the character played by Natalie Portman, was accused of being a heretic because she decides not to eat a pork roast; a dish she particularly doesn’t favor, that was served to her in a tavern. And before she knew it, she was tortured by the Inquisition on the accounts that her dietary choice is dictated not by taste but by her clandestine conversion to Judaism. Ines was sent to 15 years in jail on the alleged charges, with no proof.

Abdel-Nour’s case was similar to Natalie Portman’s character in “Goya’s Ghosts”. While the fate of Ines was decided by speculations, Abdel-Nour’s was decided by the testimonies of three school kids under the age of ten.

Unfortunately, Abdel-Nour’s will not be the last case of blasphemy Egypt will witness in the near future. If the fate of a young woman was decided by the testimonials of three under age school children, we might as well bid adieu to a country that was once a safe haven to all religions. And unless the government that has promised equality and religious freedom and safety to its Coptic minority exerts tangible measures, together with social organizations, to promote civility into a society that has been injected with religious intolerance for many decades, one fears that Egypt may revert back to medieval times.

Sectarian tension won’t simply vanish overnight by just adding a clause in the constitution, but by working hard to burn out the sentiments that ignite them, from both sides. And Abdel-Nour’s case is yet another example that has left a bitter taste in the mouths of all Copts. For it is not merely about a person sentenced to jail, but of the right of citizenship that is divided equally among the partners of the land.

One thought on “The Egyptian Inquisition

  1. Miss Kinias, I am a Catholic Christian that is researching the plight of the Coptics in Egypt. I respect your column but must warn you about quoting from anti-Catholic movies. Spain had been infiltrated in their government and in their church by those that wished to destroy both. The “inquisition” was begun by the Church to root out the infiltrators and was continued and expanded by the government. Coptics are not trying to infiltrate and destroy Egypt as those in Spain were. Coptics are being persecuted, those that were discovered to be traitors in Spain were dealt with as treasonous criminals, which they were. The USA is currently under the control of these same criminals because when Senator Eugene McCarthy warned the country that they must be rooted out, he was ostracized by the very media that is under the control of the infiltrators. I am pasting a brief summary that outlines the true events of the Spanish Inquisition.

    A New Look At the Spanish Inquisition
    by Edward O’Brien

    We’re all familiar with the popular idea of the Spanish Inquisition, which for centuries
    has been depicted as a monstrous tyranny imposed upon Spain by sinister Church and
    state officials. Bent on wiping out heresy, the Inquisition, we were told, arbitrarily
    arrested innocent Spaniards accused of heresy and browbeat them during endless and
    unjust interrogations, often torturing the accused to secure meaningless confessions.
    The condemned were then sent to vile prisons, there to await death by burning at the
    stake. Some fundamentalists have claimed that millions died in this fashion.

    Bigoted, ignorant, and fanatical Dominican friars are shown zealously directing this
    cruel and dark page of Spanish history. What Protestant or Catholic child has not heard
    of the fearful, macabre horrors of the dungeons of the Inquisition? Men of great
    imaginative genius such as Edgar Poe have written of inquisitorial terrors as though
    they were worse than the Gestapo’s. I remember being appalled by the powerful prose
    of Poe’s .

    Historians have known for some time that the popular view of the Spanish Inquisition
    is only part of the “Black Legend”-that body of writings which, since the 16th century,
    has vilified both Spain and its Catholic faith. In the 16th century, Catholic Spain was the
    great continental power. Her Protestant enemies were jealous of Spain and many
    resorted to lies to help bring down Spanish power and control. Spaniards were
    described by Northern Europeans as dark, cruel, greedy, treacherous, ignorant, and
    narrow. The Inquisition was fiercely attacked with gross exaggeration. Thus, a
    combination of political rivalry, contempt for the Catholic faith, and anti-Spanish
    racism created a distorted image of the Inquisition.

    Now, however, new and startling information is beginning to blow away the dark
    cobwebs of lies and myths-that racist distortion of the Spanish national character and
    and Hispanic culture. On June 9th, 1995, the BBC documentary, was aired on . TV often trashes the Church,
    but not this time. Spanish scholars using computerized searches through the actual
    records left by the officers of the Inquisition are showing that the Inquisition had
    neither the power nor the desire to put Spain under its control.

    Historians interviewed on the program claimed that four out of five Spaniards in the
    16th century lived in the countryside, far from the cities where the Inquisition operated.
    Transportation was primitive by our standards. The inquisitors had to journey to the
    country to question people about heresy. But the roads were bad in winter, while the
    summers were fearfully hot. The inquisitors, citified university lawyers, were often
    reluctant to make the journey. Furthermore, the Spanish countryman was unversed in
    matters of sophisticated theology: He was concerned with physical survival. Heresy
    was not likely to arise. And the parish priest of a village, informed that inquisitors were
    finally making a visitation, would tell his flock not to make any accusations against
    anyone, to say as little as possible, and the inquisitors would go away. Such details are
    not the stuff of macabre legends, but they ring true. In fact, the whole tone of the BBC
    presentation was cool, crisp, factual, low-key, and convincingly modern.

    A most important point made by the Spanish scholars is that the inquisitional courts of
    the Church were both more just and more lenient than civil courts and religious courts
    elsewhere in Europe at the time. Prisoners in Spanish secular courts, knowing this
    would sometimes blaspheme in order to be sent to the courts of the Inquisition where
    conditions were better.

    Modern Spanish scholars point out that other nations have worse records than Spain in
    dealing with heretics. English Catholics suffered horribly under Protestant regimes.
    American historian William T. Walsh writes: “In Britain, 30,000 went to the stake for
    witchcraft; in Protestant Germany, the figure was 100,000” (, p. 275).
    In Scotland, too, alleged witches were cruelly put to death. Karl Keating quotes from
    the : “It is well-known that belief in the justice of punishing
    heresy with death was so common among the 16th-century Reformers-Luther, Zwingli,
    Calvin, and their adherents-that we may say their toleration began where their power
    ended” (C.E., s.v., “Inquisition,” 8:35). Such facts are embarrassing to lovers of the Black

    Two books useful for Catholics who want to learn about the real Inquisition of history
    are by William T. Walsh, and by Karl Keating. Both authors are Catholic but neither whitewashes
    the Spanish Inquisition. There abuses: instances of cruelty, persecution, and
    personal vengeance. It would be strange if there were no abuses in a human institution
    that lasted so long. The BBC documentary says torture was used, but it could not last
    more than 15 minutes and could never be used twice on the same person. Walsh says
    that for torture to be used, a doctor had to be present, and at his command it had to be
    stopped. And there were other safeguards.

    In any case, no Catholic should ever whitewash the Inquisition. We must honestly
    acknowledge that three Popes-Sixtus IV, Innocent VIII, and Alexander VI-tried to
    moderate the undue severity of the early Spanish Inquisition. We must also face this
    question: Why should anyone ever be put in prison or put to death for believing
    heresy? That is not the way of the Gospel, nor the path of reason. Walsh pointedly says
    that no Catholic today wants a return to the Inquisition. Nor do we want cover-ups of
    the past, for as Leo XIII said, “The Church has no need of any man’s lie.”

    We do serve God in truth and so we should know the full truth about the Inquisition
    and refute the preposterous myths made up by enemies of the Church.

    For example, Fray Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor whose very name is
    now a symbol of ruthless cruelty, actually checked the excessive zeal of the earlier
    inquisitors in many ways, including the limiting and mitigating of torture. Walsh
    thinks that torture under Torquemada was no worse than that used by American police
    in the 1930s. Also, under Torquemada’s entire tenure as Grand Inquisitor (1483-1498),
    100,000 prisoners passed before his various tribunals throughout Spain. Of this number,
    less than 2% were executed. In Barcelona, from 1488 to 1498, “one prisoner out of 20
    was put to death” (23 executions). Torquemada is not the monster of the Black Legend;
    still, he was responsible for, as an estimation, between 1,000 and 1,500 deaths. And by
    burning, the common method for those times.

    For those who want to be able to defend the Church on this matter, there is much
    additional information. For example, Keating points out that there were three
    Inquisitions: the medieval, begun in 1184, which died out as the Catharist heresy
    waned; the Roman, begun in 1542, which was “the least active and the most benign.”
    And the Spanish, which he says had “the worst record.” The Roman tribunal tried
    Galileo, who was not tortured but put under house arrest and later died in his own
    bed, after enjoying a papal pension!

    The Inquisition never operated in England, Scandinavia, northern Europe, or eastern
    Europe. l have never heard of it being in Ireland or Scotland. This is significant, for
    though the medieval Catholic Church flourished in these areas, the Inquisition didn’t
    exist there. Catholic medievalism is not synonymous with courts of orthodoxy. Finally,
    Keating reminds us that the Inquisition does not prove the Church to be false, but only
    that there are some misguided people within her courtyards.

    The relationship of the Inquisition to art is now a troubling matter, after the new
    research which the BBC revealed. For example, in Dostoyevski’s famous novel , his imaginary Grand Inquisitor is a sinister horror who is master
    of Spain and who intends to put Christ to death after He returns to 16th-century Spain.
    Dostoyevski’s Grand Inquisitor is a phantom, a creature of delusion, spawned in
    ignorance. How can one believe in the Russian novelist’s scenario? Can great art be
    built on lies? Torquemada was not master of Spain and would not murder Christ. And
    what of Poe’s tale of the condemned man in Since the
    setting and the plot are wildly false, what is left? But because of the power of art, these
    writings will continue to haunt the imagination and work against the truth. They will
    remain as literary thorns in the side of the Church. l doubt if people will discard so
    handy a weapon as the Inquisition with which to beat Catholics over the head.

    This article was taken from the February 15, 1996 issue of “The Wanderer,” 201 Ohio Street, St. Paul, MN 55107, 612-224-5733. Subscription Price: $35.00 per year; six months $20.00.


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