Cairo: In a sign of unprecedented concern, Egypt’s top Islamic official recently warned against the spread of atheism in the traditionally religious country.

“Atheism is no longer a marginal issue,” Shaikh of Al Azhar, Ahmad Al Tayeb, said on Egyptian state TV. “It has become one of the many challenges facing the country. There are agencies and institutions in the country concerned about this issue.”

The top cleric’s warning has apparently prompted the Egyptian government, struggling to rejuvenate an ailing economy and keep defiant Islamists under control, to give attention to the reported rise in the number of atheists.

The ministries of Waqfs (Religious Endowments) and Youth have said they will launch a nationwide campaign to tackle atheism in the predominantly Muslim country. The planned drive will recruit the efforts of moderate clergymen, psychologists, sociologists and political specialists to address the youth, according to local media.

“The spread of atheism is linked to extremism,” said Amnah Nuseir, a professor of Islamic Creed at the Islamic Al Azhar University.

“Young people are turned off by militant clergymen who keep day and night telling people they will be condemned to hell in the hereafter. Thus, those preachers have portrayed Islam as a religion that knows no mercy. This is completely alien to moderation of Islam. ”

Egyptian authorities are engaged in a months-old fight against Islamist insurgents blamed for a wave of deadly attacks that has rocked the country since the army deposed Islamist president Mohammad Mursi last year.

Incumbent President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi, an ex-army chief, has repeatedly urged the country’s religious institutions to update their discourse to curb militancy.

In recent months, religious authorities have barred ultra-conservative Salafists from delivering sermons in mosques, a move seen as part of the government’s bid to tighten its grip on places of worship.

‘Fake freedom’

Concern about the rise in atheism is not limited to Islamic authorities. Clerics in the country’s minority Christian community are worried too.

Addressing a groundbreaking conference on atheism last week, Bishop Beshui Helmy cited the unrest experienced by Egypt since the 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak as the main reason for the trend.

“When revolutions take place in any society, they lead to a sort of fake freedom. They prompt man to rebel against everything seen as classical and traditional,” said Helmy, the secretary-general of the Council of Egypt’s Churches, a non-official ecclesiastical body.

“After revolting against the political regime, attention is turned to rebellion against the family’s authority and then the religious authorities represented by clergymen. Some people believe that as long as the ruler of the country is deposed, why not depose the chief of the world too.”

Helmy also blamed high unemployment rates, disillusionment and “dominance of materialism” for the spread of atheism.

“Atheism is the issue of the hour after the January revolution,” he said referring to the 2011 uprising that forced Mubarak to step down.

There are no official figures about atheists in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country of 87 million people. However, their number is estimated at around two million.

Atheists can face up to five years in prison, for “contempt of religion.”