PARIS "Ex-Muslims" hoping to change the terms of debate about Islam in Europe will launch a British group in London on Thursday.
The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain will be the latest addition to groupings that began in Germany in February and spread to Scandinavia in May. A Dutch group will hold its launch in September.
The activists, many of them Iranian exiles, support the freedom to criticize religion and the end to what they call "religious intimidation and threats".
"Too many things in the media and government policies have been geared to pandering to the political Islamic movements and Islamic organizations," Maryam Namazie, head of the British group, told Reuters by telephone from London on Wednesday.
"I hope we'll get a lot more attention and begin to change the debate," said Namazie, who left Iran in 1980 after the Islamic revolution there.
Leaving Islam is considered a crime punishable by death in some Muslim-majority countries. Muslims in Europe practice their faith less than their co-religionists in the Middle East but few openly proclaim themselves apostates or atheists.
There are more than 15 million people of Muslim origin in western Europe, mostly in France, Germany and Britain. Spokesmen for Muslims are often religious leaders, some more conservative theologically or active politically than the silent majority.
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, many Muslims in Europe have complained they are suspected of being terrorists or supporting extreme religious views.
Namazie said the launch of a Central Council of Ex-Muslims in Berlin inspired groups elsewhere to follow suit. The Central Council of Ex-Muslims in Scandinavia is based in Sweden with branches in Denmark, Norway and Finland.
Namazie said the British group had about 25 activists so far. She said expressions of support or interest had come in from the United States, France and Australia.
France, whose five million Muslims make up Europe's largest Islamic minority, has many non-observant Muslims but few describe themselves as atheists.
Several small groups call themselves "secular Muslims" who respect France's separation of church and state. They include some believers who want to keep religion out of politics.
Namazie said many ex-Muslim activists were Iranian exiles who did not fear reprisals from Muslim militants because they already had long experience opposing an Islamic government.
"We have been apostates for a long time," she said.