In Egypt, atheists considered a ‘dangerous development’

USA Today | By Sarah Lynch

CAIRO — In Egypt, there is seemingly no place where atheists or those thought to be non-believers are safe.

They’ve been targeted at cafes, harassed on the streets and fired as part of a broader backlash by society and the state against atheism and blasphemy.

“I have to keep my mouth shut when it comes to any criticism or satire about religion,” said atheist Amr Mohammed. “If I wish to make a remark about religion or practice of religion regarding my own beliefs, I keep it to myself.”

Dar al-Ifta, a government wing that issues religious edicts, released a survey in December claiming Egypt was home to exactly 866 atheists — a number deemed “a dangerous development.” Days later, a Cairo coffeehouse described as an atheists’ cafe was closed, media reported.

Since 2011, at least 27 of the more than 40 defendants tried on charges of defamation have been convicted in court, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

“There have been increasing attacks on citizens with minority views and others who tried to express an opinion on controversial religious issues,” the organization said in a report in August.

An Egyptian court sentenced Karim al-Banna, a student characterized by his father as an atheist, to three years in prison last month for writing Facebook posts that insulted Islam, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.

“Whoever writes, comments or talks about subjects that are against religion face being charged with a criminal offense,” said Fatma Serag, legal unit director at the association.

Though the nation’s constitution guarantees freedom of belief, it limits freedom of practice to those who follow Christianity, Islam or Judaism. In cases regarding blasphemy, prosecutors often refer to an article in the penal code that addresses extremist ideologies and exploitation of religion.