Coptic organisations have filed a complaint against author Youssef Ziedan over his novel Azazeel, which tells the story of religious turbulence of fifth-century Egypt

An Egyptian author who last year won the Arabic equivalent of the Man Booker prize could be facing a five-year jail term after he was accused of insulting Christianity in his prize-winning novel.

Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel (Beelzebub) is set in fifth-century Egypt, Alexandria and northern Syria, and looks at the turbulent period following the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity and the internal doctrinal conflicts that arose between Church elders, as well as the clash between new believers and receding “paganism”. Purporting to be the autobiography of an Egyptian-born monk and lover Hypa, who witnesses disputes in Alexandria as the city adopts Christianity, it is a bestseller in Egypt and last year won the $60,000 (£40,000) International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which is run in association with the Man Booker prize foundation.

Azazeel has provoked controversy in Egypt ever since its publication. The Coptic church denounced it as offensive for its violent portrait of Coptic church father St Cyril, and one critic said it “tries to Islamise Christian beliefs and takes the side of heretics”. Now a group of Egyptian and international Coptic organisations have filed a complaint with the country’s public prosecutor against Ziedan, a philosophy professor, accusing him of insulting Christianity. If he is found guilty, he faces up to five years’ imprisonment.

“I am trying to stay calm and neutral due to the ongoing tension; no one can predict the outcomes of the issue,” said Ziedan to the Guardian this weekend. “The Egyptian law stipulates that once the legal proceedings have started, the defendant shall not comment on the issue altogether, since he would hinder the legal proceedings. Therefore, I have nothing but a few days to talk about the issue before the proceedings start this week.”

The author said that there had been many calls to ban Azazeel, with four books written attacking his novel, but so far the Egyptian government has not complied with the demands. “Other books have been published to defend the novel, not to mention hundreds of pro-Azazeel articles,” he added. “Azazeel has kept on its wide circulation; 18 editions have been published within two years – an unprecedented incident in the history of Arab literature. All such events have increased the ire of the church, which resorted to a new technique last week.”

He had “absolutely not” expected to be sued on “charges of disdaining religions”, and says that “the majority of intellectuals expected that the public prosecutor would dismiss such a plea; however, we were surprised to find out that he has referred the case to the Supreme State Security Prosecution to begin trial proceedings”.

“Many Orthodox bishops and monks welcomed the novel, and some of them wrote positively of Azazeel, whether in Egypt, Syria or Lebanon,” said Ziedan, who has described his novel in the past as “not against Christianity but against violence, especially violence in the name of the sacred”. “All in all, I did not expect – nor did anyone – that the novel would be used politically as it is used today.”

Azazeel has already been published in Italy, where the author says it sold 20,000 copies in its first month on sale, and is lined up for publication in the UK by Atlantic Books in July next year. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds