Egypt confirms death penalty for monks over bishop killing

The case of Egyptian monk Philotheos (C) and his colleague Isaiah has shocked Egypt's Coptic community (AFP Photo/STR)

Cairo (AFP) - An Egyptian court on Wednesday confirmed death sentences for two monks over the 2018 murder of a bishop, after the country's Mufti issued an opinion approving the punishment, a court official said.

In a case that shocked the Middle East's largest Christian community, Coptic Bishop Epiphanius was found dead with a head wound in July at the Saint Macarius monastery in the plains of Wadi al-Natrun, northwest of Cairo.

Prosecutors said one of the monks, Isaiah, confessed to striking the cleric with a metal bar as the second monk, Philotheos, kept watch.

The authorities blamed the killing on unspecified "differences" between the bishop and the two monks, one of whom was later defrocked.

The sentence, passed down in February, was referred to Egypt's Grand Mufti.

The country's top theological authority is required by law to give his legally non-binding opinion in cases of capital punishment.

The defendants can still appeal.

In its ruling, the court said that the defendants had carried out "one of the greatest crimes", according to a court official.

"(Their) status as monks did not stop them from carrying out this crime, the place of the crime did not deter them, and they did not care about the advanced age of the victim or his religious status," it said.

In the wake of the bishop's killing, Egypt's Coptic Church placed a one-year moratorium on accepting new monks.

It also banned monks from social media, tightened financial controls and refocused attention on spiritual life.

Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's predominantly Sunni Muslim population of 100 million.

The country's vast desert is home to some of Christianity's most ancient monasteries.