Egypt bans sermons from informal mosques over Ramadan

The move aims to combat extremist and anti-government rhetoric

TOPSHOT - An Egyptian Muslim Sufi man attends a ceremony to commemorate the birth of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed, outside al-Hussein mosque in Cairo late on January 16, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI
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More than 20,000 storefront mosques in Egypt have been banned from preaching sermons throughout Ramadan in what the government religious oversight body says is a bid to prevent extremist incitement during the holy month.

"Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood members took control of many of these mosques and have continued to use them as platforms to broadcast their religious misconceptions," Jaber Taya, spokesman of Ministry of Religious Endowments, told The National regarding the move announced on May 2.

The ban on preaching during Ramadan came after inspectors said imams at the smaller mosques – known locally as zawyas – were more likely to use their pulpits for political messages than those at larger, better funded facilities with more qualified preachers.

“There are now more than 110,000 mosques in Egypt, and with the numbers growing all the time our ministry has taken steps to monitor violations of sermon guidelines, especially when it comes to the unacceptable promotion of extremist groups,” Mr Taya said.

The ruling follows President Abdel-Fattah Al Sisi’s January 2015 drive to promote “moderate religious discourse.” He called on the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Al Azhar – the country’s highest Sunni authority – to combat extremist ideology and promote moderate understandings of Islam.

Under the former army general, the government has led a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood since former president and brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the military in 2013. Morsi is now serving jail time for various offences he was accused of committing during his time in office.

In January 2014, the Ministry of Religious Endowments faced criticism after setting weekly topics for Friday sermons at mosques across the North African country.

The ministry says it doesn’t have the funding to employ sufficient staff  to adequately monitor mosques in all 27 governorates, although a programme started during Ramadan 2015 to install CCTV cameras at houses of worship has boosted the ability of officials to watch over preachers.

"The zawyas can still be used for prayer, we're just barring them from delivering Friday sermons," said Taya.

Some zawya preachers have already been suspended or removed from their posts for violating new guidelines or straying from the topics authorised by the ministry.

“I was suspended from my position after saying in a sermon that I thought Mohamed Morsi was a president who sought only to reform Egypt,” said a 37-year-old imam from the Nile Delta who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The suspension happened after an Ministry of Religious Endowments official reported on me to the higher ups and I have not been allowed to preach since March,” the former preacher said.

Senior clergy in Egypt say the decision to ban sermons at the storefront mosques is in line with Islamic jurisprudence.

“It’s based on a fatwa determining that the goal of Friday prayer is the assembly of people, so they should be encouraged to pray at the larger mosques,” said Abdul Ghani Hindi, a 42 year Al Azhar University graduate who was appointed to the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs shortly after Mr Al Sisi’s ascension to power.