IN February 2015, Dr Avijit Roy, a prominent atheist blogger, and his wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, were brutally set upon by Islamic extremists wielding machetes in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka.

The couple were leaving a book fair at the city's University when they were bodily dragged from a bicycle rickshaw and attacked. Dr Roy, an author and prominent secular activist, and founder of a blog site that promotes liberal secular writing, was hacked to death, while his wife suffered stab wounds to the head and one of her thumbs was sliced off.

There’s an appalling photograph of Ahmed standing, drenched in blood, close to her husband’s body, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers.

This was one of many attacks on secular bloggers in Bangladesh. As Ahmed, a leading freethinker, wrote earlier this year, on the second anniversary of the attack: “Why did we deserve such violence? Because fundamentalists were threatened by our writings – on science, philosophy and criticism of religious dogma – and they identified us as enemies of Islam”.

In May 2016, after the killing of another three bloggers, one Bangladesh-watcher wrote: “It's now undeniable that Bangladesh is in the grips of a shocking and almost systematic purge of outspoken secularists by self-appointed Islamist vigilantes.”

The world has watched such events with outrage but some activists have made meaningful efforts to assist people at risk of similar fates to that suffered by Roy and Ahmed.

Secular Rescue is an organisation established by the Washington-based Center for Inquiry (CFI), which seeks to bring about a secular society based on reason, science and freedom of inquiry. So far, it has helped more than 30 people in Bangladesh and elsewhere who have been at risk from militant religious extremists.

Secular Rescue was launched as a response to the murders in Bangladesh of secular writers and activists, starting in 2015 with Dr Roy, a naturalized US citizen born in Bangladesh. He had worked closely with CFI and many at CFI saw him as a friend. When the murders kept happening, the Center launched the initiative to start helping rescue secularists.

At the start of last year CFI merged with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science to form the largest secularist organization in the US, the Dawkins Foundation becoming a division of CFI. Professor Dawkins, of course, is the renowned evolutionary biologist and atheist, author of such bestselling books as The God Delusion, The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker.

Speaking of the work carried out by Secular Rescue, Dawkins said: “The Center for Inquiry...does an enormous amount where it can. For example, we have a program called Secular Rescue, where we go in there and, literally, rescue people in danger of their lives because they are threatened because they're apostates or blasphemous and are threatened”.

Among the people who have been helped by Secular Rescue is Lubna Yaseen, from Baghdad. Now in her mid-20s, she is majoring at college in chemical engineering. Secular Rescue describes her as an atheist who endured physical and verbal abuse thanks to her unwillingness to live in a conservatively Islamic way.

She is in now living in California thanks to Secular Rescue. It also found a pro bono lawyer in San Diego to work on her asylum claim.

Someone else who has been helped is Arpita Roychoudhury (not her real name) from Bangladesh. A feminist/secularist blogger, she has reported terrifying harassment by what she terms "local jihadis" and was even receiving death threats. Secular Rescue is helping her make her way to Germany.

Shammi Haque, 22, is a fearless advocate of secularism and free expression in Bangladesh, but for her pains found herself the target of Islamist assassins, and looked to CFI for help.

CFI gave her emergency assistance to relocate and eventually be granted asylum in Germany.

“When I was targeted, I was so afraid,” she said. “Every day I thought, this may be my last day, I may not see the next day’s sunrise. Connecting with the Center for Inquiry was a big opportunity in my life, for without CFI, I couldn’t have done anything. And CFI helped me immediately. Now I have asylum here, so I can live safely. So I am very thankful to the German government for giving me asylum so quickly.”

After enduring one attack on his life, the writer Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury napproached CFI to ask if it could help him and his family. CFI helped get them the necessary resources to relocate to Norway. Last year he was honoured by author Margaret Atwood with the PEN International Writer of Courage award.

Working with its Canadian counterparts at the independent CFI Canada, the organisation was also able to ferry the Bangladeshi writer Raihan Abir and his family to Canada. Abir had previously co-written a book with Dr Roy.

He knew he could not be too careful in Bangladesh. "Whenever we started out of the house," his wife Samia recalled later, "he used to ride the motorcycle and I used to look backward all the time to make sure no one's following us or going to do anything to us.”

Speaking in London, Raihan Abir spoke of “a strong effort in Bangladesh to turn the wheels of civilisation backwards and repeat the events and lies of a barbaric era.

“We are challenging this process through rational thinking and through our writing. Anyone who wishes to counter [us] can do so through their writing. But please do not issue fatwas to have me, to have us, killed. Do not dispatch undercover assassins with knives and guns.”