Egypt: End restrictions on religious rituals

(Beirut) – Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments should end all arbitrary restrictions on gatherings, prayers, and religious practices during the final days of Ramadan and the upcoming Eid celebrations, Human Rights Watch said today. today. On April 20, 2022, the Minister announced a ban on prayers and practices specific to the last days of Ramadan, as well as restrictions on prayers and celebrations during Eid al-Fitr, the religious holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan. .

Dr. Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, Egypt’s Minister of Religious Endowments, has taken to social media to publicize his total ban on the practice of I’tikaf and Tahajud prayers, Islamic rituals commonly performed during the last evenings of Ramadan. I’tikaf consists of spending the last 10 nights of Ramadan in a mosque. The Tahajud prayer is an evening prayer performed in the middle of the night, often during these night visits. Many Muslims consider the I’tikaf prayers especially blessed during Ramadan.

“Egyptian officials have placed unacceptable restrictions on worshipers on where and when they are allowed to pray this Ramadan and Eid,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and South Africa. North to Human Rights Watch. “Limits on religious practices should only be permitted if strictly necessary for public health and safety.”

Minister Gomaa said the restrictions are due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19. At the start of Ramadan, the government did not specify limits on the number of people allowed to attend large gatherings or celebrations, indoors or outdoors. The Egyptian cabinet announced on March 27 that events in mosques, as well as weddings and celebrations in “closed hotel rooms”, would be allowed during Ramadan “provided that precautionary measures are respected”.

On April 14, Gomaa announced that Eid al-Fitr sermons should be no longer than 10 minutes. These sermons, an important ritual marking the end of Ramadan, can usually last for hours. On April 19, Hisham Abdelaziz, a senior official in the Ministry of Religious Endowments, banned Eid prayers outside the mosque, including streets and public squares. He also said that the Eid al-Fitr prayer should only take place in mosques selected by the ministry, rather than in all mosques.

On April 25, after a backlash on social networks, Gomaa reversed the decision to ban Tahajud prayers. Restrictions on I’tikaf, Eid sermon and Eid celebrations remain in place.

After the April 19 announcement, representatives of the Ministry of Religious Endowments ordered the closure of mosques during the Tahajud prayer. Photos and videos seen by Human Rights Watch showed Ministry of Religious Endowments patrols guarding the gates of mosques during designated prayer times, preventing worshipers from praying.

In video, a patrol enters the Al-Maraghi Mosque in Helwan during the evening prayers on April 24, interrupts the ongoing prayers and orders worshipers to leave. On April 25, the Interior Ministry denied that the incident had taken place.

Sheikh Salama Abdel Razek, the religious endowments undersecretary in Alexandria, warned that those who violate the ministry’s prayer bans will be investigated.

On April 21, security officials arrested a journalist, Safaa al-Korebgy, a former employee of the Radio and Television magazine, after posting a video on social media complaining about the deadlines imposed on the Eid al-Fitr sermon and calling for the sermon to last seven hours. On April 24, officials took her to the State Security Procuratorate, where prosecutors accused her of spreading false news and joining an illegal group.

Under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, freedom of religion includes the right to practice one’s faith collectively and in public. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Egypt is a state party, guarantees the free practice of religion. Article 64 of the Egyptian Constitution of 2014 recognizes the right to freely practice religious rituals.

On March 12, the Ministry of Public Health said Covid-19 statistics would be released on a weekly rather than daily basis due to falling infection rates and the end of the fifth wave of the pandemic.

In the context of public health emergencies, human rights law recognizes that restrictions of certain rights can be justified when they have a legal basis, are strictly necessary on the basis of scientific evidence and proportionate to achieve the objective.

In February, the House of Representatives Religious Committee approved amendments to Law 51 of 2014, which regulates speech and religion classes in mosques, which prohibits “talking about religious matters through visual, audio or electronics” without an official license from Al-Azhar or the Ministry of Religious Endowments. The amendments also increased penalties for anyone who engages in public preaching without a permit or license and for anyone who expresses an opinion “contrary to the true religion”, with penalties ranging up to life imprisonment with hard labour.

“These restrictions on the free exercise of religion appear to be completely arbitrary, yet another demonstration of the Egyptian government’s lack of tolerance for freedom of expression at all levels,” Stork said.

Ruth R. Culp