The dangers of atheism in the new Egypt

Egyptian atheist Alber Saber is today out of jail, free on bail pending the results of an appeal against a three-year-sentence imposed on him last week for blasphemy and contempt of religion.

His sentence is an affront to justice and a worrying sign of where Egypt may be heading two years after the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. On other hand, Saber’s lucky he’s not dead.

In September, a crowd surrounded Saber’s home, threatening to kill him and burn it down. Saber’s mother, a Coptic Christian, called the police for help. They came and arrested him instead. In prison, according to one of Saber’s lawyers, a police officer told the other inmates to kill him. The prisoners attacked him and cut his neck with a razor.

Saber’s supposed crimes are difficult to pin down. His arrest came during the height of public uproar over the trailer for a film, The Innocence of Muslims, that mocks Islam and the prophet Mohammad. Saber was initially accused of circulating the trailer. Police found no evidence he had done so and eventually based their charges on other online statements he had allegedly made.

Said Fayez, one of his lawyers, told Maclean’s Saber had been talking about Islam and religion on Facebook, where his online friends include at least one Salafist Muslim, who took offence.

“Alber is someone who wants to discuss everything,” says Fayez. “All he did was want to discuss these ideas. Anyone who thinks in Egypt could face this.”

Saber’s atheism makes him a rarity in Egypt. His Coptic family background, however, has given his case resonance in a country where about ten per cent of the population is Christian. Many fear Egypt’s post-revolutionary government, dominated by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, will curtail their rights as it increases the role of Islam and Islamic law in Egypt.

Sameh Fawzy, a Coptic Christian and director for the Center of Development Studies a the Library of Alexandria, cautions against putting too much blame on Egypt’s new Islamist government. Christians suffered discrimination during Mubarak’s rule, too, even if Mubarak’s official policy was to protect them. Copts complained about difficulties acquiring permits to build and repair churches, and say they were underrepresented in high positions in the state.

Since the revolution, Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, has tried to reach out to Christians. But the rise of political Islam has emboldened extremist Muslims who believe Christians don’t deserve an equal place in society.

“When it comes to day-to-day language and values and attitudes and culture in general, Copts sometimes speak that they are marginalized. They feel that people don’t respect them. They feel that the situation is no longer accommodating for them. They feel sometimes threatened. They face some social discrimination in public places, in public transportation. It’s too difficult to prove,” says Fawzy.

“What we can prove is a number of Copts have been charged with blasphemy, and they face some years in prison. And those who repeatedly criticize Christianity in public have not faced the same harsh legal treatment.”

The results of Saber’s appeal are expected in January.

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