A 22-year-old Egyptian atheist was sentenced to a year in jail for "contempt of religion" at a court hearing on Monday.
Although atheism is not actually illegal in Egypt and the new constitution says freedom of belief is "absolute", atheists are "the country's second enemy after the Muslim Brotherhood" and are also health hazard since atheism is a cause of "mental imbalances and paranoia", according to a government-linked newspaper.
Sherif Gaber, a student at Suez Canal University, was initially arrested during a dramatic raid in October 2013 when armoured cars surrounded his home in the middle of the night. He was detained for several weeks before being released on bail. Following this week's court case he is still on bail pending a re-trial which could increase his sentence from one year to two years.
In a post on Facebook, Gaber said he was reported to the university by a fellow student and humiliated by a professor. It appears that the university then alerted the Egyptian authorities.
"I was taught to be a Muslim; for that my dad sent me to some Sheiks, so I memorised the Quran and more than 1000 (Hadith) until I became very religious but then I started to see the contradictions between the Quran and scientific facts, and day by day for 2 years after searching and reading I knew the truth.
"Then I became an atheist and hid it for a few months. Then I admit it despite knowing that I might get killed any moment .. My family hasn’t talked to me for more than 4 months and I lost the majority of the people I thought were my friends and for about a year now half the people on my street don’t talk to me .. I’ve got threats every single day on my phone and my Facebook account … "
Gaber told Daily News Egypt that his troubles at Suez Canal University began when he challenged a science teacher who said homosexuals should "be crucified in the middle of the streets". Daily News Egypt continues:
"According to Gaber, a lecturer from the university proceeded to print posts from Gaber’s Facebook page that questioned religion. In front of a class, the lecturer declared that he would submit them as evidence to the university’s president and the prosecutor general."
Last month another Egyptian student, 21-year-old Karim al-Banna, was given a three-year sentence for announcing his atheism on Facebook (and thereby "insulting Islam").
Commenting on the case in the New York Times, Mona Eltahawy wrote:
"The student’s lawyer complained that he was denied the right even to present a defence, but an equally chilling aspect of Mr Banna’s case is that his father testified against him.
"Also telling is that Mr Banna was originally arrested, in November, when he went to the police to complain that his neighbours were harassing him. This was after his name had appeared in a local newspaper on a list of known atheists. Instead of protecting him, the police accused him of insulting Islam. Such tag teams of family, media and state are not uncommon in cases against atheists."
Like Gaber, Banna is on bail at the moment, pending a re-trial.
Another unresolved case is that of Ayman Ramzy, a college librarian who described himself as a "humanist" in a TV interview. He is facing dismissal from his job and may yet go on trial for "promoting atheistic ideas".
Last November the authorities in Cairo closed a cafe which was said to be frequented by atheists "spreading misconceptions about heavenly religions" and others who supposedly used it for "devil worship, rituals and dances".
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 18 February 2015