Separating prayers and politics
Amid wide opposition from independent parliamentary members — mainly belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group — the People”s Assembly late last week passed a controversial law banning public demonstrations inside or near places of worship.
During discussions of the law, Minister of Religious Endowments Hamdi Zaqzouq argued that the law aims at preserving the sanctity of such places, which have lately become a theatre for political disputes. “Freedom of expression should not be exploited to justify violating the sanctity of places of worship,” Zaqzouq said.
The opposition responded that discussing national issues or expressing one”s views after praying should not be considered a violation of the sanctity of the place of worship. Besides, according to them, throughout history Al-Azhar has always been the centre of national movements. The centuries-old Al-Azhar played an active role in organising the 1919 Nationalist Revolution, while former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser chose Al-Azhar pulpit to address the nation during the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956.
But lawmakers insist that these were exceptional events, during which mosques and churches were used to gather a unified stance against invasion or occupation. For the opposition, the new law which imposes harsh penalties on anyone who organises or takes part in a demonstration at a place of worship, is viewed as yet another legislation stifling freedom of expression.
“It is merely evidence of yet more backtracking on democratic reforms,” independent MP Gamal Zahran told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Besides, if they are really keen on preserving the holiness of worship places, why don”t they define the places where demonstrations are allowed?”
The law, first proposed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments, was preliminary approved by the Shura Council last February before it was referred to the People”s Assembly for final ratification. By means of the three-article legislation, anyone found guilty of organising demonstrations at places of worship or at their annexed yards will receive a sentence of no more than one year in prison and/or a fine not exceeding LE5,000. The law stipulates that anyone who incites or urges citizens to demonstrate will receive the same penalty, even if his actions were ineffective. The third article makes it clear that those who take part in the demonstration will be penalised with a sentence of no more than six months in prison and/or a fine ranging between LE500 and LE2,000.
Although state officials stressed that once ratified the law will be applied to all places of worship, opposition MPs belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood insisted that mosques, especially Al-Azhar, are the targets of the new law. In fact, since the eruption of Al-Aqsa Intifada in the occupied territories in September 2000, Al-Azhar Mosque has been a frequent flashpoint for public demonstrations.
In the beginning, rallies — usually staged following Friday prayers — protested against both Israeli and US policies in the Middle East. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi even led one demonstration condemning Israeli practices against the Palestinians. “At the time, there was no talk about violating the sanctity of places of worship,” pointed out Zahran . “It was only when demonstrations started to protest local issues and were directed against the government and attract international media, that there were moves to silence them.”
Demonstrations are not limited to mosques, however. Churches and cathedrals have lately hosted wide demonstrations, where hundreds of Christians protest against what they describe as the phenomenon of “kidnapping” Christians and forcing them to convert to Islam.
Appointed MP Georgette Qellini, who is a Copt, is in favour of the law. “The law is related to the exercise of political rights. It has nothing to do with religious affairs,” she said during parliamentary discussions. Qellini added that demonstrations which come out of places of worship and raising religious slogans usually divide the nation.