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AS IT IS - Atheists Call for Tolerance in Egypt

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Former Christian Milad Soliman says he became an atheist after he entered university. He still has a small tattooed Coptic cross on his wrist. (Yuli Weeks for VOA)
Former Christian Milad Soliman says he became an atheist after he entered university. He still has a small tattooed Coptic cross on his wrist. (Yuli Weeks for VOA)

Hello again and welcome to As It Is, from VOA Learning English! I'm June Simms.

Happy holidays to the millions of people around the world who are preparing to celebrate Christmas. A 2011 Pew Research report says that number includes more than 2 billion people. I will have more on the Christmas story coming up later in the show.

First, we begin with a report about people who do not practice any religion at all -- not Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism. This group does not believe in religion of any kind. As Egypt experiences a period of great change, people there who do not believe in religion, or atheists, are seeking to have their voices heard. Mario Ritter has more on that story from VOA's Elizabeth Arrott.

Atheists Call for Tolerance in Egypt

Across Egypt, religion is a major part of daily life, from the call to prayer at mosques five times a day, to the sermons of Christian churches.

For most people, it is a faith that must never be broken. Leaders of the nation's Christian minority make it almost impossible for Christians to leave the church. For Egypt's Muslims, a Pew Research survey finds nearly 90 percent believe those who leave Islam should be killed.

Recently, four men who do not believe in any religion, met to discuss the difficulties of being an atheist in Egypt. They were aware of the dangers, but they wanted to speak out: not against religion, but for their right not to have one.

Ahmed Hussein grew up in a Salafi Muslim family. He began to have religious doubts as a youth. It was only in recent years that he decided to share his doubts with others.

​Hussein says his mother collapsed at the news. His sheikh sent him to a psychiatrist, who said he was not mentally disabled, just an atheist. The sheikh rejected the diagnosis.

Hussein's sheikh insisted that he suffered a "sickness of doubt." He believes the sheikh made that up to protect him from a possible death sentence that can be ordered for those who reject their faith. The state does not criminalize atheism, but its laws against "insults to religion" often are almost the same thing.

The jailing of online atheists led Ismail Mohamed to explore the subject. At the time, he was a moderate Muslim. He knew little about atheism but the arrests seemed unfair to him.

Mohamed said his online research was the first step in his understanding of not just atheism, but science as well. He said educators discussed evolution in school, but only in relation to religious principles.

Milad Soliman and Ayman Nakhla are both former Christians. Their questions about religion also led them to explore.

A few days after speaking with VOA, Ismail Mohamed went a step further. He shared his beliefs on Egyptian television.

The host of the show and guests who called in condemned his position. But his very appearance on the show is considered unusual. Political expert and rights activist Hisham Kassem could not believe his eyes.

"That man, young man, was sitting there confidently making his case. I was sitting there amazed. I never thought I would see this in my lifetime."

There are still many barriers. Ayman Nakhla was among a group of atheists calling for the new constitution to be secular, or non-religious. That request was rejected. Political sociologist Said Sadek of the American University in Cairo expects a greater division between religion and the state in the future. But he says that will take time.

Ahmed Hussein agrees. He predicts that Egypt's younger generation is already more open to the idea of a separation between church and state because of its willingness to talk about the subject more openly, both in person and online. I'm Mario Ritter.

Christians Celebrate the Birth of Christ

Actors dressed for a nativity scene held their annual "Live Nativity on Capitol Hill" on Tuesday.
Actors dressed for a nativity scene held their annual "Live Nativity on Capitol Hill" on Tuesday.

Millions of people around the world will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ next week. The event, Christmas, is one of the most important holidays of the Christian faith, right up there with the death of Christ on the cross and his resurrection three days later.

The Christmas story begins with Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the story, Mary was chosen by God to bear his son. An angel presented her with the news in stories in the New Testament of the Christian Bible.

At the time, Mary was engaged to marry a Jewish carpenter named Joseph. The two had not yet come to know each other in a physical sense. Not surprisingly, Joseph was a little concerned about marrying a woman who was already expecting a child. God is said to have sent an angel to visit him to quiet his fears. The angel told Joseph that the baby Mary was carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit and that Mary was still pure.

Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem to take part in the yearly census, a population count. Baby Jesus was born while they were there. The couple was not able to find a place to stay. So, Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable, a shelter for animals. She wrapped him in clothing to keep him warm and laid him in a manger.

During the Christmas holiday season, many people display Nativity scenes to represent the birth of Christ in a stable. There are also many songs, like this one, that tell the story of Christ's birth.

Angels declared Jesus Christ the Messiah, come to save the world. Shepherds celebrated his birth. And the story tells that Wise Men came to worship him, bringing gifts in celebration.

For many Christians, the meaning of Christmas is less about gifts and more about honoring the birth of the savior of their faith.

Happy birthday to the Jesus of the Christmas story, and Merry Christmas to all who celebrate his birth. Warmest wishes to all of our listeners the world over, whatever you believe!

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