CAIRO: Egyptian imams are pushing back against a recent move by the military-installed government to control the theme of weekly Friday sermons calling the last move to curb Islamist dissent nakedly political.
At the end of January, the Religious Endowments Ministry, which has nearly 120,000 mosques on its list, decided to unify the Friday sermon by setting a common theme for the weekly prayers, but not all of the imams have cooperated.
“The latest procedures aim to prevent incitement to violence and the spread of lies in mosques, which were being used by the Brotherhood to spread their ideas and fool people,” ministry official Sabry Ebada said. The decision was taken to “spare mosques from political fights.”
Scuffles have often broken out between pro- and anti-Morsi camps during Friday prayers, particularly when the sermon appears to favor one side over the other.
But now imams have government-approved themes such as squatter settlements, the role of youth, employment and the environment.
“The ministry’s decision is aimed at controlling the Islamist current supporting the Brotherhood at a time when many imams feel sympathetic toward the Brotherhood and Morsi,” said Amr Ezzat, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
“Mosques are the scene of an ongoing battle between authorities who are trying to prove that their policies are in line with Islam, and the current of political Islam which is trying to strip the state of its religious legitimacy.”
But not all imams are toeing the government line, and Ezzat said the ministry had “no tools allowing it to impose its control over all mosques.”
Khalaf Massoud, imam of Montazah Mosque in Cairo’s working-class neighborhood of Imbaba, has talked of what is “right and wrong” in his Friday sermons, in a reference to the ongoing strife in Egypt.
“The state is adopting measures to secure backing through religious preachings. This is unacceptable,” Massoud told AFP. “I am an imam who follows religion, not an imam who follows power.”
After last Friday’s sermon, four Cairo imams were being investigated by the ministry for “inciting violence and calling for anti-government protests,” Ebada said.
The control of mosques, many of which run charities, is important for both sides, said Georges Fahmy, an analyst with the Cairo-based Arab Forum for Alternatives.
These places of worship are “channels through which public opinion is formed,” particularly in Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta, both rural areas, he said.
And the control of mosques is vital for Islamists to air their views since the authorities have shut down many of their television stations, Fahmy added.
Each week’s theme is published on the ministry’s website and also passed on to imams by the ministry’s offices in Egypt’s 27 provinces, said Mohammad Abdul-Salam Badr, imam of a northern Cairo mosque.
Egyptian worshippers are divided over the measure.
“I am against unifying the sermon,” engineer Bahaa Marwan said as he attended a sermon at Assad Ibn al-Furat Mosque, a stronghold of pro-Morsi Salafist preacher Hazem Abu Ismail.
“The intention is political and the objective is to silence dissent.”
Another worshipper, Ahmad, agreed, saying the aim was “to make people listen only to what the government has to say.”
But Mahmoud Hussein, a 53-year-old electrician, backed the move:
“The government is trying to defuse the situation by silencing those who are inciting violence.”
The controversial measure comes as Egypt remains deeply polarized after a government crackdown on supporters of Islamist president Mohammad Morsi, who was deposed by the army last July.
Morsi’s supporters have since capitalized on the weekly prayers to garner backing for their protests calling for his reinstatement.
The authorities accuse Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, of using mosques to spread their ideology and enroll new recruits across Egypt.
The Religious Endowments Ministry in late 2013 dismissed 55,000 imams who did not hail from Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious institution in Sunni Islam.
They were accused of “inciting violence and using mosques to spread religious extremism and promote Islamist groups.”
Amnesty International says the crackdown on pro-Morsi supporters have already left more than 1,400 people dead since his ouster.