Cairo: Egyptian authorities have set strict rules for going into spiritual seclusion in mosques in the mostly Muslim country, the latest move in an inexorable government crackdown on militant Islamists.
Devout Muslims traditionally spend the 10 last days of the holy month of Ramadan in mosques for intense worshipping and meditation following the example of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). The lunar month is expected to end on July 17.
The Ministry of Waqf (religious affairs) has confined Ramadan seclusion, known as I’tikaf, to major mosques, banning the observance of this Sunna (the prophet’s tradition) in small prayer places usually run out of the state’s control.
According to the rules announced by the ministry, the seclusion should be limited to worshippers residing in areas where these mosques are located, a condition verified by their identity cards. Applications for seclusion should also be approved by imams of those mosques.
The ministry said that the measures are aimed at preventing extremists from “sneaking” into mosques. The ministry has set up an operations room to monitor the situation in the 3,187 mosques designated for seclusion across Egypt, according to media.
Violations of the rules would be deemed acts of illegal gatherings that could be punished by jailing. The restrictions are part of a clampdown that has targeted the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood since 2013 when the army toppled president Mohammad Mursi, a senior leader in the Islamist group, following enormous street protests against his rule.
The government has since sought to tighten grip on mosques, denying the Brotherhood and allied groups a major forum to influence devout Muslims.
“The Ministry of Waqfs has refused to allow seclusion in a number of mosques because the Brotherhood and some [ultra-conservative] Salafists planned to manipulate those mosques for political gains,” said Abdul Nasser Nessim, a senior official at the ministry.
Reversing its earlier criticism of the government’s policy on mosques, the Salafist Call movement, the religious wing of the Islamist Al Nour Party, has welcomed the latest curbs.
“We are trying hard to comply with the law and stick to the conditions set by the Ministry of Waqfs in mosques specified for observing seclusion,” Ahmad Shukry, a senior member of the Salafist Call, said.
“We have no problem in having an imam appointed by the ministry to be responsible for overseeing seclusion.”
Salafists used to dominate mosques mainly in rural areas. Worshippers have reacted differently to the latest I’itakf regulations.
“This arrangement is purely political. Why should I be prevented from going into seclusion in a mosque outside my district?’” said a man, who gave his first name only as Farhat. “And why should my personal data made public? Throughout Islam’s history, the mosque has always been a place for Muslims to meet and discuss the matters related to their life and religion.” To Mahmoud Al Hussainini, this is not the case.
“These measures may be strict, but they are necessary to guarantee worshippers’ safety,” said the 65-year-old Muslim man. “They ensure that no strange extremists will take refuge in mosques as was the case in the past,” he added. “We have suffered enough from militants and we all should cooperate with the government in protecting our country.”
Egypt has experienced a series of deadly attacks by radical Islamists since Mursi’s overthrow.