CAIRO — In a move to tighten state control over religious discourse, Egypt has launched a campaign to force Muslim clerics to read standardized government-written sermons at Friday prayers.
Minister for Religious Endowments, Mokhtar Gomaa, gave the first-such scripted sermon Friday at Cairo's Amr ibn al-As Mosque. Reading from a batch of notecards, Gomaa recited a sermon against corruption titled, "Bad money is a lethal poison."
"Our prophet has condemned the person who gives a bribe, who receives a bribe, and mediates between the two," he said. The same sermon had been posted several days earlier on the ministry's official website.
Dating back to the days of ousted autocrat President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has previously tried multiple times to monitor and influence the content of Friday sermons. But this marks the first time ever that pre-written sermons are being nationally distributed and enforced.
The move comes in the context of wide-ranging campaign by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's government to control public expression. All unauthorized demonstrations have been criminalized, thousands have been jailed, activists and rights lawyers have been prosecuted or banned from travel and voices critical of the government have been largely silenced.
El-Sissi has also launched a public campaign to reform and modernize Islamic discourse, weeding out religious extremism and separating politics from religion. He has repeatedly called for a "religious revolution" with the Cairo-based Al-Azhar — the Muslim world's most prominent Sunni religious institution — leading the way. However, critics say, his autocratic rule has only fueled militancy and extremism.
Under Mubarak — removed in a 2011 popular uprising — clerics had a margin of freedom of speech inside mosques. Loyalists whose sermons were aired live on TV would usually refrain from politics, while thousands of mosques were essentially outside of government control, and delivered sermons infused with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood or the ultraconservative Salafist movement.
But the effort to bring the nation's mosques under control gained new momentum in 2013 after el-Sissi, then defense minister, ousted elected President Mohammed Morsi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood official whose divisive one-year reign produced mass street protests.
Morsi's ouster prompted a new effort to regulate the Friday sermons. Officials suspected of links to Islamic groups were purged from the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which then began distributing guidelines for acceptable sermon topics. But the move to literally standardize the sermon texts is unprecedented.
"It is the first time in Egypt's history to read from a paper," said Deputy Minister of Religious Endowments Gaber Tayaa, who also said that some of the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, have been considering the same step. "The minister wanted to take the lead."
Tayaa said a ministerial committee that inspects and monitors the mosques would report on the performance of clerics around the country.
Gomaa, the minister, defended the move as aimed at filtering out extremism and promoting reform.
"We are launching the written sermon from the most majestic mosque in the land of Egypt," Gomaa told reporters near a small office adjacent to the mosque, adding that reading out a sermon left him "more relaxed and regulated."
A committee of state-hired scholars will write each week's sermon for clerics to read word-for-word. Gomaa said the government will prepare 54 sermons covering 52 weeks in addition to religious holidays, and that there will be a long-term plan to write for 270 sermons covering five years.
"Imagine if you take the 270 subjects ... we will be contributing to shaping a new way of thinking," he said. "But people are thinking, this is not restricting them."
Early opinions among the congregation on Friday were mixed.
Nasser Amin, an engineer who came to join Friday prayers at the mosque, told The Associated Press, "This is killing creativity."
"The direction they are taking will discourage people and over time you will find no one in mosques," he said. "You force people into one direction, into adopting one way of thinking. Repercussions in the long-term will not be positive for sure."
But another worshipper, Adel Mallah, said, "This is an excellent idea, especially at a time when Egypt is surrounded by security threats."