Government continues attempts to extend control over mosques

The Endowments Ministry issued a decree on April 5 relieving “extremist imams” of their duties, only few days before President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi renewed calls for “reforming religious discourse” in the wake of the two bombings targeting churches during Coptic Christian celebrations on Palm Sunday.

In the televised address announcing a three-month-long nationwide state of emergency, Sisi specifically referred to the need to renew religious discourse to fight growing extremism. He announced the formation of the Supreme Council to Combat Terrorism and Extremism, and although the reach of the council remains unclear, it will count addressing religious discourse among its tasks.

Following Sisi’s address Grand Mufti Shawky Allam made comments stressing the need for greater control over the process of issuing fatwas in Egypt. In a meeting in Parliament, Allam said that there is a need to issue a law to establish criteria outlining who is eligible to issue religious edicts nationwide.

The decision to issue the decree followed several measures taken by the ministry since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 to exert more control over mosques. A preacher who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity says that the decree allows the Endowments Ministry to take action against imams and preachers who are not facing criminal charges. Amr Ezzat, a researcher in religious freedoms and institutions, believes these measures are being used by the government to serve a political agenda.

The decree allows the Endowments Ministry to take action against imams and preachers who are not facing criminal charges.

According to Gaber Taye, head of the ministry’s religion sector, the aim of the decision is to protect mosques from “infiltration.” The decree also aims to protect mosques from the dissemination of  any “ideas that are inconsistent with the moderate discourse of Al-Azhar.”

Imams accused of extremism would be sent to the ethics committee which in turn “would make a just and balanced decision,” Taye tells Mada Masr.

The decree aims to “ban any imam or preacher who adopts an extremist or radical ideology, who is a proven member of a terrorist group or an extremist group or has adopted their ideology, from addressing prayers through the mosque minbar or from giving religion lessons in the mosque.”

Any state-appointed imam or preacher who commits an act undermining his eligibility to address prayers through the mosque minbar will be transferred to an administrative position and prevented from leading prayers and giving religious lessons, according to the decree. As for non-appointed imams and preachers, they will be relieved of their duties and have their licenses revoked.

This decision further tightens existing regulatory measures by allowing the ministry’s current disciplinary committees to take action against imams and preachers in accordance with its own evaluation without waiting for a trial, where previously terrorism related charges were handled by the judicial system, the preacher tells Mada Masr. “The ministry has taken measures in the past few years against any imam implicated in a terrorism trial, or any anti-state activity, including those who are convicted.”

But this decree gives the ministry the authority to track those who do not adhere to its approach, without waiting for a court to issue a verdict against an imam, or for security forces to arrest them, they add. The point is to penalize any “preacher with radical ideology” in a more serious manner, he affirmed.

According to the decree, the ministry is assigning its inspectors, heads of divisions and regional directorates to “track violations and report them to ministry officials to take the necessary measures.”

State controlled prayers

The Egyptian government has sought to exert more control over mosques and reduce the number of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi imams since Morsi’s ouster, at which time Endowments Minister Mokhtar Gomaa said that the ministry was determined to eliminate the “chaos in preaching” that had resulted from  “dragging mosques into the political conflict.”

Ezzat believes that the political orientation of some imams and preachers is the real focus of the decree.

Amr Ezzat, a researcher in religious freedoms and institutions at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), says that he is suspicious as to whether subscribing to a “radical ideology” will actually be the criteria for the removal of an imam from a mosque. Instead, Ezzat believes that the political orientation of some imams and preachers is the real focus of the decree.

In a September 2013 interview Gomaa announced the ministry’s plan to control the religious discourse adopted by non-governmental mosques through what he called the “supervision of religious speech.” He threatened that the ministry would seize any mosque found to violate the framework for religious lessons set by the government, which encompass “a moderate discourse that reflects the nation’s interests, neither inciting nor uttering profanities, while refraining from any attack on the state institutions or national and religious symbols.”

Several decisions were then made by the ministry to expand its control over mosques, though Gomaa admitted that this applied primarily to mosques not owned by the Endowments Ministry. The monitoring of imams and preachers was one of these measures.

Endowments minister delivers Friday sermon. - Courtesy: إدارة الإعلام بوزارة الأوقاف

These also included a decision made in September 2014 that requires imams and preachers not employed at the Endowments Ministry to apply for a license, which comes with strict conditions.

Preachers are also obliged to read their Friday sermons from a ministry-written handout rather than adhere to the Endowments Ministry’s practice of promulgating a unified topic, a method which has been in effect since 2013. But several imams and preachers have questioned the applicability of the measure.

Monitoring and penalizing

“As an imam working in rural areas, the unified topics aren’t always suitable for rural communities,” Mohamed Sobhy, a ministry-certified imam in the Beheira Governorate told Mada Masr in a previous interview. “Since the imposition of the unified sermons in 2013, not a single Endowments Ministry inspector has shown up in my mosque,” he added.

The ministry’s attempts to expand its control over mosques included imposing new operating conditions on prayer corners, which are held in garages or other areas of buildings in residential neighborhoods, even if they are already licensed to hold Friday prayers. The ministry has also removed Muslim Brotherhood books from mosque libraries, installed surveillance systems in some mosques and seized others it claims have adopted anti-state speech.

This is a case of reverse exclusion which reinstates the status quo before the revolution, when security reports determined who would be appointed and who would be removed.

It remains unclear how the Endowments Ministry plans to implement its most recent decree, says Mohamed Nassar, head of the Quran, culture and religious guidance division at the ministry’s directorate in Qalyubiya. According to Nassar, imams have found the text of the decree vague, and as such they are drawing their understanding of how it will affect them from the ministry’s announcement of the proposed measures.

But he praises the decision, saying that it “reiterates the ministry’s aim since 2013, which is the introduction of a new and correct religious discourse in society.” The ministry has previously suspended several imams for the same reasons mentioned in the new decree. This includes disseminating “destructive ideas” and diverging from the weekly topic chosen by the ministry, delving instead into politics.

For God or for the president?

Sisi has also affirmed the necessity of renewing religious discourse in the past. During a speech given during the celebration of the Prophet Mohamed’s birthday in 2015, organized by Al-Azhar and the Endowments Ministry. Subsequently, Al-Azhar launched a plan to renew religious discourse and the Endowments Ministry began to take steps to implement these plans.

The measures adopted by the ministry since 2013 reflect the state’s intention to clear the institution of Muslim Brotherhood imams, appointed during Morsi’s tenure in an attempt to exclude those with connections to the security apparatus, Ezzat says.

However, he believes that the ideologies adopted by Egyptian imams, whether affiliated with the Brotherhood or not, are similar. “This is a case of reverse exclusion which reinstates the status quo before the revolution, when security reports determined who would be appointed and who would be removed. Some imams who seek to strengthen their connections to the authorities or to return to their positions, help the government in implementing its measures by reporting their colleagues who have anti-regime political opinions.”

Translated by Waad Ahmed

Osman El Sharnoubi 

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