Council of Churches discusses ways to tackle atheism in Egypt

The executive committee of the Egyptian Council of Churches convened for a meeting on Tuesday to amend some of the technical terminology of their bylaws and internal regulations, and to discuss church plans to combat atheism across the country.

Formally established in February 2013, this council includes top representatives of five different churches within Egypt: The Coptic Orthodox Church, Greek Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Evangelical Church, and the Episcopal Church.

According to media reports quoting Reverend Refaat Fathy, a member of the executive committee, this council of leading Christian clergymen discussed the ways in which church plans and laws could better combat and confront atheism in the country.

Fathy is quoted as saying that, under the guidance of the executive committee, church-based bodies would be established in order to discuss and question Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The executive committee of the Egyptian Council of Churches also discussed plans for the establishment of interfaith committees involving churches and mosques, with the aim of controlling and confronting atheism among members of both faiths.

While atheism or religious disbelief is not a crime in and of itself in Egypt, the country’s criminal code does criminalize the dissemination of atheist thought.

According to Article 98(f) of the Egyptian Penal Code: Ridiculing the (three) heavenly faiths, and the propagation of atheism in words, writing, or other means is punishable by sentences of up to five years in prison, and/or fines of up to LE1,000.

According to Article 160, the desecration of religious symbols is punishable by imprisonment of up to five years, and/or fines of up to LE500.

Article 161 stipulates that mocking a religion or religious rite in public is a crime carrying the same penalties as Article 160.

Due to security concerns, atheists and agnostics in Egypt have tended to a keep low profile, although since the 2011 Uprising a greater number of Egyptian non-believers have been expressing themselves more openly on social networking sites, and a number of atheist communities have emerged, both on and offline.

One former Christian, self-professed atheist Alber Saber, was sentenced to three years imprisonment in December 2012 for posting anti-religious videos and comments of an atheist nature on his Facebook page. While appealing this verdict, Saber fled the country the following month and has been living in exile ever since.

A report was issued by Amnesty International condemning the verdict against Saber, and several other human rights organizations denounced the attack on his freedom of expression.

Egypt’s new constitution (passed by popular referendum in January 2014) guarantees absolute religious freedoms (Article 64) and freedom of thought, expression and opinion (Article 65).

However, the country’s top Christian cleric — Coptic Pope Tawadros II — appears to be dismissive of such rights and freedoms. Phoning in to the Al-Tahrir Satellite channel in March, Tawadros asked, “How can we talk of human rights at this point in time,” when Egypt is subject to violence, terrorism and crime? The pope added that human rights reports documenting violations in Egypt are often “biased” and misleading.

The Egyptian Council of Churches is scheduled to convene again in September and December this year. Further discussions regarding church mechanisms on how to address and contain atheism are due to be continued then.