The Egyptian parliament is considering a proposal that would criminalize atheism in the predominantly Muslim country that already enforces stringent laws against blasphemy.
A legislation that would make it illegal to profess no belief in God was introduced on Dec. 24 and was given consideration by the parliament shortly before New Year's Day, Religion News Service reported.
Under current Egyptian law, it is illegal to insult or defame any religion, and a conviction carries up to five years in prison.
The new measure, introduced by Amro Hamroush, head of the Parliament's committee on religion, seeks to punish those who declare themselves to be atheist, even if the offender had not insulted or defamed other faiths.
"It must be criminalized and categorized as contempt of religion because atheists have no doctrine and try to insult the Abrahamic religions," Hamroush said in announcing the proposal.
Egypt's highest Islamic religious organization, the Al-Azhar, has expressed its support for the proposal. Mohamed Zaki, an Al-Azhar official, said that the new measure was necessary to "punish those who have been seduced into atheism."
The proposal drew harsh criticism from Ani Zonneveld, founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values, an international group based in Los Angeles.
"This criminalization of atheism contradicts the very essence of the Quran, verse 2:256, 'There is no compulsion in faith.' This legislation is anti-Islam," she said.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) has noted that 27 out of 42 defendants have been convicted by Egyptian courts between 2011 and 2013 for declaring their atheism.
The arrests of atheists have been on the rise since 2014, after the government announced its national plan to "confront and eliminate" atheism.
In November 2014, 21-year-old student Karim Ashraf Mohamed al-Banna was sentenced to three years in prison after he declared his atheism on Facebook.
More recently, security forces arrested a 29-year-old computer programmer on Dec. 21, 2017 for administering a Facebook page that promotes atheism.
Dar al-Iftaa, Egypt's authority tasked with releasing religious opinions, published a report in October 2014 indicating that the country has the highest number of atheists in the Middle East as it had reached 866 out of 87 million Egyptians.
During a student conference in September 2014, Egypt's former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa claimed that 12.5 percent of Egypt's youth have turned to atheism.
Recent statistics from the Family Court affiliated with the Supreme Judicial Council had shown that 6,500 women had filed for divorce in 2015 due to their husbands' atheism. Under Egypt's Personal Status Law, Muslim women are allowed to file for divorce if their husbands have renounced their religion.