File photo: Egyptian parliament (Reuters)
Osama El-Abd, head of parliament's religious endowments and affairs committee, told Ahram Online that the committee is highly appreciative of a new anti-atheism initiative launched by Al-Azhar.
El-Abd said the Bayan ("Statement") initiative, annouced on 22 March, comes in response to growing reports that the number of atheists in Egypt is increasing.
"We strongly support this initiative because Al-Azhar is the institution most capable of standing up to atheist thoughts and irreligious beliefs," said El-Abd, adding that "while we - parliament and official religious institutions - are keen to move together to fight extremist and radical Islam ideologies, we are also keen that we join hands to contain atheist thinking."
He said that the initiative also comes after Al-Azhar's clerics said they had become worried about the spread of the phenomenon of atheist beliefs on social media.
"As this has become a phenomenon, it was important that the institution responsible in this respect moves quickly to ring alarm bells and takes an organised reaction," said Al-Abd.
Momtaz El-Dessouqi, an MP from the upper Egyptian governorate of Assiut and a member of parliament's constitutional and legislative affairs committee, also told Ahram Online that "there are reports that Egypt now ranks first among Arab countries in terms of the number of atheists."
"A report by the International ‘Global’ Institute said Egypt includes 866 atheists, but I think that the number is far much more than this," said El-Dessouqi, adding that "it is a shame that the country with the most prestigious religious institutions – the Sunni Islamic Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church – has such a large number of atheists."
Omar Hamroush, deputy chairman of the religious affairs committee, said Al-Azhar's investigation of social media showed that the number of atheists in Egypt has reached 2 million (or 3 percent of the total population).
"This is one of the reasons which prompted me to draft a law aimed at fighting atheism," said Hamroush, adding that "when atheism takes the form of a growing phenomenon, all should move to take all possible means, particularly legislation, to fight it."
Hamroush said Al-Azhar's Bayan initiative is mainly focused on fighting atheists and atheist beliefs and ideologies on the internet.
"The initiative aims to build contacts with young people who espouse atheist beliefs on the interest, build a dialogue with them, and respond to their anti-religious ideas," said Hamroush.
Hamroush indicates that "most of the atheists raise sceptical questions on issues related to Islamic sharia and fundamental beliefs and the responsibility of the Bayan unit is to respond to these questions and refute any claims on Islamic sharia and the religion of Islam in general."
Al-Azhar's International Centre for Online Fatwas has said that since it launched the Bayan initiative it has received many atheist young people and held a fruitful dialogue with them.
"We can’t say that they are atheist youth, but they have sceptical questions about their religion (Islam), while some of them made contacts via the internet with some irreligious currents in the West," said the centre, adding that "it will continue holding such dialogue with many others, providing them with important books on moderate Islam and other religions."