Cairo: Egypt’s military-installed authorities are tightening their grip on mosques by laying down the theme for the weekly Friday sermons, in the latest move to curb Islamist dissent.
The controversial measure comes as Egypt remains deeply polarised after a government crackdown on supporters of Islamist president Mohammad Mursi, who was deposed by the army last July.
Mursi’s supporters have since capitalised on the weekly prayers to garner backing for their protests calling for his reinstatement.
The authorities accuse Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood to which Mursi belongs, of using mosques to spread their ideology and enrol new recruits across Egypt.
The religious endowments (Waqf) ministry in late 2013 dismissed 55,000 imams (prayer leaders) who did not hail from the state-controlled 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-Mursi supporters has already left more than 1,400 people dead since his overthrow.
In January, the 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.
“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 also taken to “spare mosques from political fights”.
Scuffles have often broken out between pro- and anti-Mursi camps during Friday prayers, particularly when the sermon appears to favour 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 towards the Brotherhood and Mursi,” 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 neighbourhood of Imbaba, has talked of what is “right and wrong” in his Friday sermons, in a reference to the ongoing political strife in Egypt.
“The state is adopting measures to secure backing through religious preachings,” Massoud said. “This is unacceptable. 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,” ministry official Ebada said.
The control of mosques, many of which run their own 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 their local waqf offices in Egypt’s 27 provinces, said Mohammad Abdul Salam Badr, imam of a northern Cairo mosque.
Worshippers are divided over the measure.
“I am against unifying the sermon,” said engineer Bahaa Marwan as he attended a sermon at Assad Ibn Al Furat mosque, a stronghold of pro-Mursi Salafi preacher Hazem Abu Esmail. “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 Hussain, a 53-year-old electrician, backed the move.
“The government is trying to defuse the situation by silencing those who are inciting violence,” he said.