Courageous Egyptian Author, Salaheddin Mohsen, Defends Secularism

CAIRO, June 18 (Reuters) - An Egyptian writer on trial for atheism and blasphemy against Islam rooted his defence in the right to free speech, court sources said on Sunday.

"I have an opinion and I expressed my opinion in these books," Salaheddin Mohsen, in detention since April, told a state security court when his trial opened on Saturday.

Prosecutors put him on trial after he admitted under questioning this year that he did not believe in Islam and sought to promote secular thought in four recent books.

Mohsen "is sick in the heart and an example of atheism," prosecuting lawyer Ashraf al-Ashmawi told the court.

"He mocked Islam and its rites and duties and was proud of his insolence against religion under the slogan of enlightenment and freedom of creativity," he said.

Mohsen "claimed that Islam is the reason for the nation's backwardness, that Mohammed is not a prophet but wrote the Koran and that the Koran is full of contradictions," Ashmawi said.

Mohsen is charged with "using religion to promote, by writing, extremist ideas to denigrate the Islamic religion, provoke strife and damage national unity."

The trial is the first of its kind since Egypt's top appeals court pronounced Cairo University professor Nasr Abu Zeid an apostate on the basis of his writings in 1996 and forcibly divorced him from his Moslem wife.

Thousands of religious students clashed with police in May in protests over the reprint of "A Banquet for Seaweed" by Syrian writer Haider Haider, a book they said insulted Islam.

Defence lawyer Samir Bagoury said Mohsen's works were "merely philosophical ideas" and asked the court to call as witnesses Religious Endowments

Minister Mahmoud Hamdi Zakzouk and Gaber Asfour, secretary-general of the Supreme Culture Council, a state body.

The trial resumes on Saturday.