An Egyptian court has handed a death sentence to a man found guilty of murdering a Coptic Christian priest in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria in April, judicial officials said on Sunday.
They said the sentence was announced by the Alexandria criminal court on Saturday after the grand mufti notified the tribunal of his “no-objection” to the decision.
The court on May 18 convicted Nehru Tawfiq, 60, of the murder of Father Arsanios Wadid, 56, and asked Grand Mufti Shawky Allam, Egypt’s top Muslim theologian, to review the verdict.
The mufti’s opinion on such cases is not binding, but is a necessary formality in cases of capital punishment.
Father Wadid died of his wounds in hospital after being stabbed on Alexandria's seafront promenade as he accompanied a group of 35 young parishioners who were out on a “spiritual picnic.”
Saturday’s sentencing hearing was only the third since the case was brought to court. The verdict can be appealed before a higher court.
Tawfiq was brought to the court on Saturday amid tight security, according to the court officials. He flashed the V-for-victory sign from the dock — normally a caged-off section of Egyptian courtrooms — and loudly recited verses from the Quran, they added.
He had claimed that he was admitted 10 years ago to a mental health unit because of his personality disorder and that he was in Alexandria to look for work. He also claimed to have found the knife he stabbed the priest with in a rubbish basket and kept it for self-defence because he was homeless.
During the case’s first hearing earlier in May, the court heard witnesses for the prosecution and evidence from two police officers, who said the crime was an isolated incident and did not appear to be premeditated.
The prosecution, however, rejected that and insisted the case be treated as premeditated murder, which is punishable by hanging.
At the time of the killing, regional media reports said Tawfiq was a member of an extremist group in the 1990s and jailed for his involvement in terror attacks.
He later received a presidential pardon and was released.
Prosecutors had said a psychological examination showed Tawfiq did not suffer from any mental illness and was fully aware of, and responsible for, his actions at the time of the crime.
He has also been charged of the illegal possession of a weapon, a reference to the knife used in the attack, the prosecution said in April.
Footage taken from security cameras and purporting to show the incident was screened at the start of the second hearing last month.
The prosecution said Tawfiq "followed the devil's path" when he joined the extremist Gamaa Islamiyah group. This surfaced in the 1980s and was a prime player in an anti-government insurgency in the 1990s that included assassinations and attacks against tourists and security forces.
"By God, these are lies … I am not an extremist," Tawfiq yelled from the cage last month, interrupting the prosecution.
He also declined to co-operate with court-appointed defence lawyers, insisting that he wanted to represent himself. His request was denied by the court.
Sectarian violence is not uncommon in Egypt, a mainly Muslim nation of 103 million.
Extremists have targeted Christians in recent years, especially after the 2013 removal of president Mohammed Morsi of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi was removed amid mass street protests against his divisive, one-year rule.
In September 2017, an ISIS supporter stabbed to death an 82-year-old Christian doctor in Cairo. He was sentenced to death the following year.
There have also been suicide attacks in recent years against churches in Cairo, Alexandria and a city in the Nile Delta north of the capital.
Pilgrims travelling to isolated desert monasteries west and south-west of Cairo have also been targets.
Coptic Christians, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the Middle East, comprise about 10 to 15 per cent of Egypt's population.
The community has long complained of discrimination and under-representation.
But in February, Egypt for the first time swore in a Coptic judge to lead its constitutional court.