In Islam, attending Friday sermons is mandatory and is the most important prayer of the week.
For observant Muslims in Egypt, the sermons delivered by clerics in their respective neighborhoods offer a time to connect spiritually and, for many, remain their main source of religious teaching.
For imams, it’s a chance to focus their sermons on issues affecting their particular community, sometimes mixed with political messages.
Now Egyptian authorities are trying to change all that. Officials announced Tuesday that Muslim clerics will be required to read out identical sermons pre-written by various government agencies, an initiative that is part of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s effort to combat extremism. The move has upset Muslim preachers throughout Egypt.
An unnamed undersecretary, quoted by Reuters, said that the sermons would now be written by ministry officials and senior clerics from Al-Azhar, the main center for Islamic learning in Egypt, as well as members of parliament who serve on Egypt’s House Committee on Religious Affairs.
“The objective [of the decision] is not at all political,” the Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, said, according to reports inside Egypt. He said the decision is in an attempt to reduce the length of the sermons as well as to depoliticize them.
It might be difficult to enforce the new practice. But some Egyptians worry that if the government controls what is being discussed at places of worship, it will also be able to define religious education for large segment of Egypt.
Egyptian authorities are now facing backlash from imams over this decision. Some have expressed anger, saying that the new approach is too restrictive.
“Everywhere in Egypt, every city or village, has different circumstances. A certain village might have a robbery problem and so the sermon should talk about thievery. Another place might have widespread murder and that is what should be discussed,” Abdelsalam Mahmoud, an imam at a mosque in the southern city of Luxor, told Reuters.
Since 2014, Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments has been providing imams with different topics for their sermons, but this move goes further.
The announcement comes against a backdrop of statements that Sissi has made about combating religious extremism. Earlier this year, he asked for a “religious revolution,” according to CNN. “I say and repeat, again, that we are in need of a religious revolution. You imams are responsible before Allah,” Sissi said. “The entire world is waiting on you.”