GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Ministry of Religious Endowments and Affairs in the West Bank decided May 25 to ban mosque preacher Walid al-Hodali from taking to the pulpit on Fridays. This decision sparked controversy about the policy to punish and exclude mosque preachers who criticize the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) policies during the Friday sermon. These preachers are accused of provocation and stirring strife.
Hodali, who is from Ramallah, told Al-Monitor, “On May 25, I received a verbal decision over the phone from the Ministry of Endowments in Ramallah and al-Bireh stating that I was banned from giving the Friday sermon under the excuse of offending high authorities and stirring strife among worshippers.”
But Hodali said he received formal notice that he was banned because he strayed from the sermon topic specified by the Ministry of Endowments in Ramallah. The topic was about road traffic safety. He said, “They want preachers to turn into traffic police on pulpits, knowing that there are several important national issues that should be highlighted such as supporting the Great March of Return in Gaza and tackling the repercussions on the Palestinian cause of moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
The Ministry of Endowments in the West Bank often chooses a theme for all preachers to follow during the Friday sermon, and it issues a written circular that includes the topic of the sermon for the upcoming week as well as themes and Quranic verses to be mentioned.
Preachers who stray from this circular are verbally notified that they are banned from taking to the pulpit on Friday and are told what sanctions will be imposed on them.
Hodali considered the decision unjust and said it aimed at undermining the role of clerics in supporting national issues and nurturing worshippers’ national and religious culture. He said he thought the real reason his sermons were banned was more along the lines of what was cited in the phone call, namely that he had criticized the PA.
Security sources in Ramallah told Al-Monitor that the PA-affiliated security institution is deploying its officers in all West Bank mosques to monitor preachers’ compliance with the Friday sermon circulars. The names of violating preachers are sent to the ministry to impose sanctions, mainly financial ones, by deducting part of the monthly salary, banning the preacher from taking to the pulpit until further notice or suspending his work.
Sources added that “any violation committed by the Friday preachers against the PA, its head, symbols or policies in dealing with Israel is considered a punishable one.”
The same security sources said that the Ministry of Endowments has banned seven preachers since the start of 2018 because they criticized PA policies during the Friday sermon.
Sheikh Muhammad Abahira, who has worked as an imam at the Grand Mosque in Jenin in the south of the West Bank for two years, told Al-Monitor, “Punishing Friday preachers who criticize the PA is a form of dictatorship and oppression against anyone opposing its policies.”
On Feb. 25, the Ministry of Endowments banned Abahira from taking to the pulpit for Friday sermons and deducted part of his salary after he gave a sermon Feb. 23 under the title “Treason.”
Abahira said, “The topic of my sermon was treason, and I talked about the need to reject it. I also tackled national treason, which includes security coordination with Israel. I did not point fingers at anyone in my sermon. I only criticized policies.”
He added, “The Ministry of Endowments in Jenin summoned me and notified me of the ban without any convincing justification or reason.”
Former Minister of Endowments Nayef al-Rujoub, who is also a member of the parliamentary Change and Reform Bloc affiliated with Hamas, condemned the policy of banning Friday preachers from taking to the pulpit if they diverge from the unified sermon topic or criticize the PA’s policies.
He told Al-Monitor, “Punishing Friday sermon preachers has become a phenomenon in the West Bank targeting anybody who opposes the PA.” He believes the ban is directed against the freedom of opinion and expression.
He said the Ministry of Endowments not only determines the topic of the sermon but also warns preachers to avoid certain themes, such as criticizing the security institution when it clamps down on a protest defying PA policy.
Amer Mortada, a citizen from Jenin, criticized the PA’s policy and told Al-Monitor, “If the ministry posts on Facebook the sermon topic, themes, texts and Quranic verses for the preacher to abide by, why then would we need to go to the mosque at all?”
He wondered, “Why aren’t preachers given the liberty to choose the topic of the Friday sermon and give their opinions without restrictions?”
Baraa Jarra, a citizen from Nablus in the north of the West Bank, advocated unifying the Friday sermon in all mosques and punishing violators. He told Al-Monitor, “The Friday sermon should be framed to avoid turning it into a platform for political opinions and whims and to prevent repetition.”
He added, “Many preachers stir strife during the Friday sermon by inflaming the internal Palestinian rift between Fatah and Hamas or calling for revolt against the PA. This is blatant provocation and an attempt to undermine civil peace. Therefore, the authorities should take punitive measures against the violators.”
Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs Yousef Adeis said his ministry punishes any preacher who sparks strife in his sermon before worshippers or who strays from the unified Friday sermon topic.
He told Al-Monitor, “Any Friday preacher who diverges from the specified sermon topic or recites texts that cause confusion will be considered outside the national flock. We will not allow him to be a preacher among us.”
Adeis said the Friday preachers must call for unity rather than incite division and enmity among citizens or between the PA and citizens.
The situation seems different in the Gaza Strip. Undersecretary of the Hamas-led Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments in Gaza Hassan al-Saifi told Al-Monitor, “The ministry in Gaza does not impose specific topics on mosque preachers and leaves them the freedom to pick whichever topic they want. But, exceptionally, the ministry forces preachers to adopt a unified topic during national occasions or emergencies like when [US President Donald] Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel on Dec. 6.”
Saifi criticized the Ministry of Endowments in the West Bank for excluding mosque preachers and banning them from taking to the pulpits. He said the ministry in Gaza does not impose such sanctions on preachers who express their own opinions.
Adeis, however, said he believes it is necessary to impose a unified sermon on preachers and punish violators because mosques are pivotal in forming public opinion and provide a social education for Palestinian citizens.