Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Just days after Egypt’s military-backed interim government cracked down on unlicensed religious preachers, banning them from delivering sermons in a move seen as a further blow to the ailing Muslim Brotherhood, Awqaf (Religious Endowments) minister Dr. Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa announced the formation of a special committee to ensure that mosque pulpits are not used for political purposes.
He said: “The ministry is in the process of forming a committee to monitor what is happening in the larger mosques and ensure that da’wa [proselytizing] there does not transgress the boundaries into political or partisan work, with any official found guilty of this being immediately held to account.”
“The ministry belongs to the people, and there is no room for political work here. Mosques are for da’wa, not politics,” he added.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the minister, who is in charge of all religious buildings and preachers in Egypt, defended his decision to bar 55,000 unlicensed clerics from preaching in mosques. He said: “This decision is to stop non-Azhar graduates from preaching in government and civil mosques.”
“We intend to restructure the manner in which non-Azhar graduates were granted licenses to preach in the past,” he said. Al-Azhar is the highest Sunni religious institution in Egypt.
Gomaa denied that the government’s decision is politically motivated, saying: “The Ministry of Awqaf does not ban anybody based on their political identity . . . but we want mosques, da’wa, and worship to be based on the moderate ideology of Al-Azhar.”
Cairo subsequently softened its stance towards unlicensed mosques and preachers, postponing the application of a ban on weekly Friday prayers in so-called Zawya (Corner) mosques until October 1. Zawya mosques are small, one-room neighborhood mosques usually established on the ground floor specifically for Friday prayers.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat before the postponement, Gomaa said: “The ministry will not close any mosque, and every mosque will remain a mosque until judgment day, but congregation Friday prayers should take in congregational mosques, and so we have banned Friday prayers in zawyas that are smaller than 80 square meters, unless they have a special dispensation from a ministerial under-secretary.”
According to the latest figures, there are approximately 100,000 mosques registered with the Ministry of Awqaf, not including 13,000 zawyas. However, the actual number of so-called corner mosques in Egypt is estimated at being far greater, with almost every neighborhood having its own.