In Egypt, atheists considered a 'dangerous development'

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.

Ayman Emam, an atheist who created the Egyptian Atheists Community Facebook page to monitor assaults on expression of belief, has been threatened for his views. In addition to being harassed online, Emam said he found a piece of paper on his car in the summer of 2013 with verses from the Quran saying apostasy should be punishable by death.

"You cannot do anything about it because what are you going to do about it — go to the police?" Emam said. "The police are not going to help you and will probably get you into trouble."

In September 2012, angry mobs of men surrounded the Cairo home of activist Alber Saber Ayad and accused him of heresy and atheism for allegedly promoting a film online that criticized Islam, Amnesty International reported. After his mother called police for protection, authorities arrested Ayad, who was sentenced for "defamation of religion."

Others have faced problems at work. In June 2013, a teacher at a middle school in the district of Giza was fired for being an atheist, Serag said.

Last year, Interior Ministry official Amin Ezz El-Din, who oversees security in the coastal city of Alexandria, said on Egyptian TV that a task force would be formed to arrest non-believers, according to news website Mada Masr.

The recent crackdown comes amid a broader discussion about religion. Atheists recently started appearing more frequently on Egyptian television shows. Days before the attack last month in Paris on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for a revolution in Islam to overhaul the religion — a significant act in a conservative country where the population of roughly 90 million is mostly Muslim.

During a speech on New Year's Day, al-Sisi stressed the importance of spreading moderate teachings of Islam and confronting misleading interpretations of the faith, according to the State Information Service. That doesn't appear to indicate impending acceptance of controversial views.

"There is no plan to protect freedoms," said Amr Ezzat, a researcher and head of the religious freedoms program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "It's an abandoned topic."