- Karim al-Banna was sentenced to three years in prison for Facebook posts insulting Islam
- Human Rights Watch says al-Banna's sentence is part of an Egyptian crackdown on atheism
- Egypt's Constitution provides "freedom of belief," but freedom to practice is more limited
(CNN)Egypt's Constitution states that "freedom of belief is absolute," yet it says nothing about those who don't believe.
Watchdog groups are asking the predominantly Sunni Muslim nation to reconsider its stance toward atheists after authorities arrested a student and sentenced him to three years in prison for Facebook posts that insulted Islam.
Karim Ashraf Mohamed al-Banna was arrested with a group of people at a cafe in November, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. An Egyptian minor offenses court sentenced him on blasphemy charges Saturday in what Human Rights Watch called "part of a wider government push to combat atheism and other forms of dissent."
"Atheists are one of Egypt's least-protected minorities, although the constitution ostensibly guarantees freedom of belief and expression," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East and North Africa director. "Egyptian authorities need to be guided by the constitution and stop persecuting people for atheism."
While Article 64 of Egypt's Constitution says freedom of belief is absolute, it also says freedom to practice religious rituals or establish houses of worship is exclusive to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Baha'i faith and other Abrahamic religions.
According to French Press Agency reports cited by HRW, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said a local newspaper identified al-Banna as an atheist, and al-Banna's lawyer reported that the student's own father testified that he was fostering extremist ideas.
Among al-Banna's posts are a split image of a severely scarred woman and a Quran with the caption, "It's OK to burn a woman ... but it's NOT OK to burn a book. Something is wrong with your priorities." Another post carries the caption, "A big reward to whoever represents Islam" and shows several caricatures of bearded men in similar dress pointing at each other, saying, "This person does not represent Islam."
A judge will hear al-Banna's appeal on March 9, and his bail has been set at 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($140), his lawyer told the French Press Agency.
HRW says that blasphemy cases generally stem from "personal or unrelated disputes," and since the country's 2011 uprising, authorities have increasingly investigated complaints. While most of the cases involve alleged insults to Islam, HRW says that at least two men have been imprisoned for insulting Christianity.
Christians make up roughly 10% of Egypt's population.
Authorities have also been targeting atheists of late, according to HRW. Police in December shut down a Cairo cafe popular with suspected atheists, and District Administrative Chief Gamal Mohie told a news outlet that the shop was unlicensed and "popularly known as a place for Satan worship, rituals and dances," HRW reported.
Also last month, the Dar al-Ifta, which issues religious edicts in Egypt, released a survey claiming Egypt had 866 atheists, more than any other Middle Eastern country. Two aides to the grand mufti, who heads Dar al-Ifta and is the country's top official on religious laws, told a newspaper that the increase in atheism "should ring alarm bells."
This follows a March promise from a top Alexandria security official to arrest atheists and a June announcement by "Egypt's youth and religious endowments ministries" that they would confront atheism.