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In a turbulent political climate, the Ministry of Endowments is once again at the heart of a standoff, facing accusations of serving certain agendas as political Islam struggles to survive.

A recent decision to revoke the licenses of 55,000 imams and ban Friday sermons in mosques smaller than 80 meters put the ministry in the hot seat. Some accuse it of attempting to cripple the religious influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Endowments Minister Mohamed Mokhtar said in a press conference last week that the 55,000 imams are not graduates of Al-Azhar University, hence "do not fit with the mainstream moderate discourse of Al-Azhar."

We need to cleanse the religious discourse in Egypt. We have seen how a destructive religious and political discourse was leading the country to the brink of a civil war.

Those imams — who led the Friday prayers and were paid by the ministry on a freelance basis — had certain political inclinations that incited violence and propagated certain political ideas, the minister claimed.

However, Mokhtar maintains that these decisions are completely untraditional in the history of the Endowments Ministry.

Under the short-lived reign of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the Endowments Ministry was under a strong Muslim Brotherhood influence, and faced accusations of using mosques for political gain.  

The Muslim Brotherhood has long been accused of propagating its political ideas through mosques, as well as mobilizing citizens to vote for its candidates.

In recent months, there have been scattered reports of scuffles breaking out inside mosques in response to provocative sermons. 

Sheikh Ahmed al-Bahey, general coordinator of the Imams without Constraints movement, agrees with Mokhtar’s approach, saying that the way Friday prayers were held in the past was extremely "chaotic."

"We need to cleanse the religious discourse in Egypt,” he tells Mada Masr, “We have seen how a destructive religious and political discourse was leading the country to the brink of a civil war.”

The movement was launched earlier this year under Muslim Brotherhood rule to call for imams’ independence and fight against what members considered the political exploitation of mosques.

The movement had urged the Endowments Ministry to set clear criteria for employment and not to exclude any imams unless they were proven to be corrupt.

But the ministry’s actions have raised fears of a tightened grip over religious discourse and a threat on religious freedoms, a notorious problem in Egypt. 

Preachers Against the Coup Coalition, a Brotherhood-affiliated coalition of preachers opposing the military takeover that ousted Morsi on July 3, slammed Mokhtar's decision, calling it a "war on Islam."

"Those imams are volunteers who fully understand the Quran. They are some of the best imams and preachers who consider preaching Islam a religious duty, and who are willing to give Friday sermons with very limited financial resources," the coalition said in a statement.

"So instead of rewarding them and putting them on permanent contracts, the coup-backed government revoked their licenses," the statement added.

Before the 2011 revolution, the choice of freelance Friday imams was said to be controlled by State Security, who handpicked imams on condition they would not criticize the government.

Bahey, however, believes that the clock cannot be turned backward, and that no one would allow the government to control the religious discourse.

"We as imams, and Egyptians themselves, will not allow any narrative to be imposed on us like the past. People now are more aware of imams who follow the state's guidelines, and will not allow them to do so," he says.

Amr Ezzat, a researcher with the religious freedoms program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), explains that the state's attitude towards freelance imams shifted after January 25.

"Before the revolution it was the State Security that chose the imams, but after the revolution, the door was wide open for Brotherhood and Salafi imams to lead the prayers, giving them a very powerful tool to dominate the mainstream religious discourse," he explained.

Still, Ezzat does not expect the decisions to be implemented fully, but rather used as a tool in the hands of the state to threaten any imams that challenges the state's religious discourse.

"It will be used in the power play against the Brotherhood. The ruling regime knows that mosques run by Brotherhood imams are an important tool for the Brotherhood, and it is important to cripple this influence," he explains. 

Bahey, on the contrary, argues that this decision is the only way to guarantee that mosques are not being used to spread sectarianism or develop an extremist address.

The massacre of a Shia family in Giza's Zaweyat Abu Mesallam village last May, when four Shias were lynched, is arguably a flagrant example of how incitement against religious minorities spread by imams can lead to brutal sectarian strife.

Many believed the attack was a result of a growing anti-Shia rhetoric by some extremist Sheikhs. A speech given by Morsi in a packed stadium days before his ouster in support of the Syrian rebels, which was preceded by several speeches by Salafi Sheikhs who incited against Shias, was believed to be the tipping point.

"We do not want to see such horrible scenarios again," Bahey stresses.

But Ezzat thinks this incident is an example challenging the trend stipulating that Al-Azhar is the cradle of the moderate Islamic discourse.

"The imam that incited against the Shia in this village was licensed and a graduate of Al-Azhar, and the mosque was registered by the Endowments Ministry," Ezzat explained, adding that the problem with extremist narratives is that they are originally embedded within Al-Azhar.

"It is not about fighting extremism, because in this regard the Brotherhood discourse is not different from Al-Azhar's. It is a power play in which the state is controlling the religious discourse to serve its own political interests. As long as religion is controlled by the state not the people, we will continue to see this rift," Ezzat explained. 

Politics aside, the Endowments Ministry’s decisions also raised logistical issues.

Ezzat questions the state's ability to execute the ministry’s decisions, given the difficulty of controlling tens of thousands of mosques scattered across the country.

"We have over 110,000 mosques, some of which are registered with the ministry, and others entirely run by the citizens. It is very difficult to prevent people from praying in certain mosques because they are small, it is even more difficult to ensure that unlicensed imams are actually prevented [from preaching]," Ezzat told Mada Masr.

While Bahey agrees with Ezzat that the decisions are difficult to implement, he believes that citizens need to cooperate with authorities.

Mokhtar warned that all imams’ licenses must be renewed within the next two months.

Imams would now have to submit a request to the ministry to renew their licenses, accompanied by copies of degrees obtained from Al-Azhar or another ministry-affiliated institute, Mokhtar said, as a way to exclude unqualified imams delivering political sermons inciting violence.

This raised further concerns of a shortage of imams, as Azhari imams appointed by the ministry are not enough to cover over 120,000 mosques across the country.

But Mokhtar said that preventing Friday Prayers in mosques smaller than 80 meters is one way to deal with the shortage.

"From a purely Sharia perspective, Friday Prayers are held in every area’s big mosques. Once this mosque is at full capacity, we can then resort to a smaller mosque,” he said.

“In some cases, you may find four small mosques on one street with citizens scattered among them," he said, adding that in most of these mosques there are unlicensed imams.

Another way to cover the shortage, the minister explained, is to allow imams who are graduates of Al-Azhar University to replace their unlicensed counterparts.

"By doing this, we will open the door for 53,000 Azhar graduates to replace the unlicensed imams,” he explained. “Those are the ones who deserve to lead the religious discourse in Egypt.”

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