By Jamel Arfaoui
The Tunisian religious affairs ministry issued a statement earlier this month reasserting control over the appointment of imams at the nation’s mosques.
The March 6th statement came as a relief to many Tunisians after a series of skirmishes erupted at mosques across the country who had the right to name religious leadership.
The ministry reaffirmed it was responsible for appointing imams and religious cadres, adding that no one had the right to “intervene in this regard whether by dismissal, appointment or change in any way or under any circumstances”.
“Religious places, including mosques, are public property, and therefore, any disposal of them by introducing changes to their structure, supplying them with equipment or disposing of their components by changing their looks or furniture in any way is a legal violation and a call for chaos,” the ministry said.
The ministry stressed the need to refer back to it for any changes; something authorities say would “take place as per the desire of worshippers provided this demand is supported by the necessary arguments and documents”.
The statement was the second in three weeks by the religious affairs ministry. On February 17th, the ministry called for “respecting the sanctity of mosques all over Tunisia”.
About two weeks ago, a mosque in Ariana, a suburb of Tunis, witnessed disputes among a group of worshippers between those who supported a certain Friday khatib and those who rejected him.
“We have decided to boycott this imam because of his extremist calls,” Med Ali Zammouri, a man in his 50s, told Magharebia. “He didn’t even hesitate to support female circumcision; something that infuriated most of worshippers.”
However, Tarek ben Abdallah, a young man in his 20s, was of the opinion that the khatib was an example to be followed because he called for “implementing God’s Sharia and the Sunnah of His Prophet”.
Meanwhile, a number of imams were forced to resign because of the “continuous intimidation and terrorisation that they were subjected to at the hands of a group of extremists”.
“I decided to step down because of the harassments that I’ve been subjected to inside the mosque without any regard to its sanctity,” said A.B.H., a former imam who requested anonymity. “After that, things developed until I was prevented from delivering the Friday sermon. After a debate in which I was backed by a number of worshippers, I stepped down in order to preserve the sanctity of the place.”
“I hope that the Ministry of Religious Affairs will take action and stop this chaos and I think that the recent statement came on time,” the former imam added.
On January 20th, worshippers at Great Mosque of Mahdia were surprised by a group of Salafists calling for changing the time of Friday prayers and also the Friday imam under the pretext that “he was incompetent and doesn’t know the Islamic Sharia well”. However, most worshippers supported their imam and the mosque nearly became a scene of confrontation.
Mehrzia ben Amor commented that the ministry’s statement was important “in order to put an end to scenes that have nothing at all to do with Islam”.
She said that what those few people were doing were unjustified, especially “after places of worship became an open venue for khatibs and imams after the revolution to deliver their sermons and religious lessons, unlike before when mosques would be shut in the face of worshippers after each prayer”.