CAIRO – In his weekly sermon, Muslim cleric Ali Abdel-Moati preached to his congregation in a southern Egyptian city about the evils of making hasty judgments. That prompted a complaint to authorities from a judge, who accused him of criticizing a recent mass death sentence issued against supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
Days later, Abdel-Moati was suspended from the mosque in Assiut, replaced by a new preacher, and put under investigation by the Religious Endowments Ministry.
Egyptian authorities are tightening control on mosques around the country, purging preachers and seeking to control the message, as the military-backed government cracks down on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood following his ouster last summer.
Some 12,000 freelance preachers have been barred from delivering sermons. The Religious Endowments Ministry, or Awqaf in Arabic, now sets strict guidelines for sermons, and anyone who strays from them in Egypt's more than 100,000 mosques risks removal.
The aim, officials say, is to prevent mosques from spreading extremism and becoming a platform for political groups, after widespread criticism that the Brotherhood and its more ultraconservative allies used them to build support, recruit new followers and sway voters. During elections the past three years, Islamist clerics would often tout a vote in the Brotherhood's favor as a vote for Islam or supported by God.
But the result is silencing any sort of critical voice and making the minbar — the name for the pulpit in a mosque — apolitical, bringing no potential challenge to authorities and delivering a single shade of Islam to the public.
"The aim is to prevent mosques from serving agendas of political parties or being used as propaganda machine for any ideology either those with the government or not," Sheik Ahmed Turk, director of the Grand Mosques in Egypt, the Awqaf department that oversees the largest mosques, told The Associated Press. "Now we push our own preachers and clerics to give apolitical message to normal people."
The 37-year-old Abdel-Moati, in Assiut, says he is not a Morsi supporter. He said he criticized Morsi in his sermons, saying he was turning himself into a "pharaoh" through his decrees and that the Brotherhood was dividing Egyptians. When Morsi visited Assiut as president, Abdel-Moati said he was replaced by another cleric for the day because of his criticisms.
An Awqaf Ministry official said the judge complained that Abdel-Moati was "interfering in judicial affairs," claiming that in his sermon he directly criticized the court verdict in the city of Minya that sentenced hundreds of Morsi supporters to death for killing a police officer in a mob attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Abdel-Moati said he never mentioned the verdict or the courts at all and only warned against "making hasty judgments because it could lead to bloodshed." He said he believes the judge was not even present at the sermon and heard about it secondhand.
"Now because of the deep polarization, any word can be used against anyone because of the hypersensitivity between the rival sides," Abdel-Moati said.
The campaign is being led by the new Awqaf minister, Mohammed Mokhtar Gomaa, who took his post after Morsi's ouster. He vows to ensure mosques transmit only the message of Al-Azhar, Egypt's premier Islamic institution that touts itself as the voice of moderation.
The drive aims to go beyond any such attempts during the 29-year-rule rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. His government had loyalist clerics who stuck to a state line, but not all mosques came under state control. The government moved only sporadically to rein in mosques connected to jihadi extremists, but allowed Muslim Brotherhood-run mosques to expand their charity network, which built grassroots support for the group.
Ultraconservative Salafis — who advocate a strict Saudi-style version of Islam and an unbending literal interpretation of the Quran — enjoyed virtually free rein to expand since they were seen as apolitical and no threat to Mubarak's rule.
After Mubarak's fall in 2011 and Morsi's rise to the presidency, the Brotherhood was accused of pushing its loyalists to prominence in the Awqaf Ministry. But facing a backlash, it was unable to bring mosques under its control.
It is not clear if the government will have the ability to completely control the vast number of mosques, given the state's sometimes limited reach. Still, Gomaa's moves have been sweeping.
In his first decision, he revoked the licenses of all clerics and preachers and forced them to apply for new ones, giving the ministry the chance to vet them. Some 12,000 were barred. More than 80,000 have been licensed, including some 55,000 employed by the ministry. The rest are Al-Azhar-trained clerics.
Gomaa also issued a ban on holding Friday prayers at thousands of small, unregulated mosques known as "zawaya." Usually built by well-off families in their home neighborhoods, zawaya were often a fertile ground for preachers from the Brotherhood or Salafis to operate. Last month, Gomaa announced plans to bring all zawaya under state control.
The ministry's website also posts outlines for the weekly sermons delivered each Friday. It sets each week's main topic, the Quranic verses to be discussed and the sub-topics the preacher can use to develop the main subject. Recent subjects include the environment, the role of young people, helping street children and dealing with addiction.
Violators of the guidelines face punishment, including suspension.
Salafi preaching — perhaps the most swiftly spreading in the past decades — has been dramatically muted. Salafi TV networks have been shut down. Hugely popular top Salafi clerics are among those refused new preaching permits, including the head of the main Salafi religious association, the Gamiya Shariya, Mohammed Mohktar al-Mahdi.
The Gamiya Shariya, which runs some 5,000 mosques, reached a deal with the ministry that allows the group to appoint its own preachers but under supervision to ensure they abide by the ministry guidelines, the association's spokesman Hamid Ahmed said.
Last Friday, a prominent Al-Azhar cleric, Ismail el-Diftar delivered the sermon at one of Egypt's most prominent mosques, Cairo's Amr ibn al-Aas Mosque, built by the Muslim general who first conquered the country 1,300 years ago. He stressed the need for unity in the Muslim nation and warned in vague terms about the "enemies of Islam" — seen by many worshippers as a reference to the Brotherhood.
Some in the congregation said the policy was good, reining in mosques from which the Brotherhood launches its protests.
But Mohammed Hassan, a 40-year-old who came to pray with his two sons, was not impressed. "This new policy is meant to make all people think the same way in accordance to the ruling authority."
In the upscale Cairo district of Maadi, Hala Salah was furious about the sermon about unity delivered by a top Awqaf official at the mosque she frequents — the El-Rayan Mosque, long a center for Salafis and Brotherhood supporters that once attracted prominent Salafi preachers.
Salah was particularly upset when the Awqaf preacher said that even if someone worships an idol, it is better not to let them do it if arguing will cause divisions. She scoffed that she may quit the mosque.
"The cleric has to speak out about the state of the nation. You can't disassociate completely from surroundings," she said. "You can't keep telling me not to differ, in order to get along with the ruling authority." She then went to join a Brotherhood protest nearby.
The cleric who delivered the sermon, Mohammed Kilani, said he has seen harsher receptions.
In December, he accompanied an Awqaf cleric to preach at a Brotherhood-run mosque, the al-Azizi b'Illah, in an old Cairo district. Islamists mobbed the cleric, shouting "traitor" and raised their shoes at him in a sign of contempt, and someone snatched the cleric's skull cap off his head.
"It was a surprise to me," he said. "I didn't expect people to behave this way inside the house of God."
Associated Press writer Mamdouh Thabet contributed to this story from Assiut, Egypt.