RAMALLAH, West Bank — The mosques in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are still an arena of political conflict between the governments of those areas and religious parties of various orientations.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) became aware of the mosques’ political importance after Hamas’ victory in the 2006 legislative elections. Back then, the mosques were used to disseminate political ideas. The authorities sought to terminate that phenomenon after the split in 2007.
In 2009, the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs in the West Bank approved a series of decisions to limit the control of Hamas and religious parties on mosques by directly supervising them, preventing nonemployees from managing cultural or religious programs, preventing speeches or leading prayers and unifying the topics of the Friday sermons.
Mahmoud al-Habbash, the minister of endowments and religious affairs in the Palestinian government in Ramallah, told Al-Monitor that the ministry decided in 2009 to place all mosques under its supervision and end the phenomenon of factional or partisan mosques. The ministry supervises 1,935 mosques, as the ministry’s undersecretary Khamis Abdo told Al-Monitor.
Nashat al-Aqtash, an academic at Birzeit University, told Al-Monitor the "conflicts in mosques decreased after security apparatuses began exerting pressures on political parties to stop them from returning to their bases in mosques."
"As soon as the PA loosens its grip on the situation, the conflict rages again between parties. The conflict could further escalate should the PA weaken in the coming period," he said.
In response to the accusation that the Ramallah government is controlling and dominating the mosques for certain political goals, Habbash said that according to the law, the ministry is responsible for all mosques, that the mosques are part of the ministry’s work and that the ministry’s policy is to protect the mosques from political pestering.
“There are no mosques that belong to parties,” he said. “No party has the right to use the mosques to deliver its partisan message. And whoever tries to do so, we will be forced to stop him. … We have issued a circular to all preachers and imams in mosques that they shouldn’t allow any party or nonqualified person to use the pulpits or to give lessons. … We have a unified sermon having a unified subject matter and content. [That unified sermon] is intended to control the religious discourse and prevent a sermon from being used for political or partisan purposes.”
The issue was given prominence following an incident at Bira al-Kabir Mosque involving Hizb ut-Tahrir. Security forces besieged Bira al-Kabir Mosque on the evening of March 29, when Hizb ut-Tahrir members were holding a religious gathering and attended by Al-Monitor. Hizb ut-Tahrir members had a verbal altercation with the mosque’s preacher and imam, and both sides traded religious and political accusations. Then, the security forces searched and arrested dozens of Tahrir members when the latter left the mosque.
Hamas has previously accused the PA of expelling imams and preachers because of their affiliation with Hamas. Hamas also accused the PA of adopting a discourse that attacks Hamas’ political line and its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“According to the law, the ministry is responsible. If any group or party attempts to use the mosques, we will be forced to stop it. We have no choice but to enforce the law, protect social peace, and prevent a breakdown of society via a religious discourse having political goals. … Any party or citizen that wants to break the law on this subject has to bear the consequences and the results,” Habbash said.
Baher Saleh, a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s media office, told Al-Monitor, “The Endowments Ministry has no right to prevent anyone from speaking in mosques. … There is nothing in the Palestinian Constitution that prevents the delivery of a mosque sermon without first obtaining the approval of the Endowments Ministry.”
"We are facing difficulties in Gaza while doing our job. The pace of hardship varies between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, according to the political agendas of both authorities. Sometimes Hamas opposes us according to what serves its interest, just like the PA does in Ramallah as well," he said.
In response to accusations that Hizb ut-Tahrir is using mosques as a base to disseminate political ideas, Saleh said, “It is natural that each party would try to mobilize the people using all means and to propose political ideas in all available places, including mosques. The PA does the same thing to mobilize people around its political project. [The PA] also uses the mosques for that purpose.”
Birzeit’s Aqtash believes that the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs in the West Bank is seeking to use mosques as a means to serve the political system, drawing from the experiences of Arab states that are “trying to apply this strategy, through the dominance of the government over mosques. This is what Hamas is trying to do in Gaza."
Hassan Yousef, a Hamas-affiliated member of parliament in the Legislative Council, said that there should be controls, agreed upon by everyone, to oversee the mosques. But that shouldn’t result in shutting down mosques, which must be open to all in accordance with those controls.
“Mosques should be kept away from political pressure. Qualified preachers should be given the chance [to give a sermon]. They should not be prevented [from giving sermons] because they are known for their knowledge and they have a history of giving mosque sermons. … And preachers shouldn’t be chosen in a selective way,” he told Al-Monitor.
Political parties recognize that mosques in Palestine are a vital platform to disseminate their ideas and political programs. While the governments stress the need to keep politics out of mosques, neither appear to be adhering to their own rules. Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas gives a weekly sermon in Gaza while the West Bank’s endowments minister, Habbash, delivers sermons in Tashrifat Mosque in the presence of President Mahmoud Abbas.
The media outlets affiliated with both sides broadcast those sermons, which contain political remarks that serve the two sides’ political lines. Despite words to the contrary, the battle of the mosques remains more on political grounds rather than religious.
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