By Houda Trabelsi
Tunisia’s ministry of religious affairs seeks to reclaim control over 5,000 mosques before the month of Ramadan after some of them fell under the sway of extremist imams.
About 120 mosques remain controlled by salafist preachers, according to Ali Lafi, the political advisor to Religious Affairs Minister Noureddine Khadmi. The number has dropped from 400 in March, Lafi said on June 16th.
The religious affairs ministry will “deal with any violation of laws on mosques” in co-operation with the interior ministry, according to the ministry’s statement.
Scores of religious institutions in Tunisia have slipped out of government control after the revolution. Extremist clerics have used the places of worship to incite killing artists and journalists or call for fighting jihad in Syria.
Some groups also tried to isolate imams appointed by the ministry of religious affairs and replace them with salafist-affiliated preachers.
In early June, the police arrested an imam of al-Rahma Mosque in Jendouba (northwest of Tunisia) after he called for killing security personnel.
For months now, an extremist salafist group, which clashed with security forces on many occasions, has taken refuge in a mosque in Jendouba.
At the beginning of June, Minister Khadmi was mistreated at the Gazelle mosque in Ariana, west of Tunis, by salafists who had seized control of the mosque, AFP reported. They expelled the official and hid his shoes during a Friday prayer.
Khadmi vowed that the ministry would monitor sermons at mosques to prevent incidents such as the deadly violence that followed an imam’s comments about a controversial La Marsa art show, Tunisia Live reported on Sunday (June 24th).
“An imam is not supposed to create controversy or damage people’s reputations,” said Ali Lafi. “Our ministry chose to remain silent over such issues in the beginning. Now we are taking a stricter approach,” he said.
The ministry will be “swift and fair” in punishing offenders, he said.
A Zitouna Mosque official has already been banned from preaching, following controversial comments made during prayers on June 15th.
Houcine Laabidi, who heads the mosque’s “Scientific Committee”, said that artists involved in the “blasphemous” Palais Abdellia exhibit were “infidels” who should be put to death.
Sofiene Mseddi, a worshiper who attends a mosque in El Menzah in Tunis, told Magharebia: “We were praying behind an imam whom we all love, when all of a sudden, he was removed by force and replaced by an extremist. Therefore, I decided to pray at home instead of going to the mosque.”
Taxi driver Mohamed Zeitouni faced a similar situation.
“I can no longer go to Hina Mosque after our kind and moderate imam was dismissed and replaced by an extremist imam,” Zeitouni said. “The new imam’s discourse is tense and involves much violence, and even his sources are not trusted.”
“Frankly, those extremist imams are a danger to young people’s minds at mosques. They try to pass messages filled with violence, hatred and religious extremism which feeds terrorism,” concurred Mustapha Bidani.