Egypt authorizes force to police 'unuthorized' Islamic tracts

Monday, June 14, 2004

CAIRO Egypt has bolstered the authority of state-employed Islamic clerics in what could be a prelude to the formation of a religious police force.

The regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has granted the state-operated Al Azhar seminary the authority to supervise and seize material deemed in violation of Islamic law. The regime has approved the formation of an Al Azhar force to inspect book stores and kiosks for material that counters the Sunni Islamic mainstream.

Al Azhar inspectors, however, can not make arrests, Egyptian officials said.

Instead, they can report violations to authorities for either subsequent arrest or further investigation, Middle East Newsline reported.

In May, Justice Minister Farouk Seif Nasser empowered Al Azhar clerics as part of Egypt's campaign against Islamic opposition groups. Authorities have arrested scores of Brotherhood members over the last two months on charges of belonging to an illegal organization and seeking to overthrow the regime.

On June 5, the Egyptian daily Nahdet Masr reported what it termed was the first raid of the new Al Azhar force. The newspaper said that two days earlier clerics from Al Azhar's Islamic Research Academy searched bookstores and publishing houses for unlicensed religious tracts. Hundreds of unlicensed copies of the Koran as well as unauthorized Islamic tapes were confiscated.

The government decision was meant to empower Al Azhar to stop the distribution of anti-regime religious tracts. In 2003, Egypt was rocked by a series of demonstrations organized by the Muslim Brotherhood against the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian war.

Al Azhar inspectors have been allowed to demand the search of any premise suspected of harboring unauthorized religious tracts, officials said. They then could confiscate literature deemed un-Islamic.

Al Azhar clerics have acknowledged the raids. They said their goal has been to remove what they termed unauthorized versions of the Koran from Egyptian book stores.

Egyptian human rights groups have warned that the new force could become a local version of the Saudi Arabian religious police. Al Azhar clerics, however, denied that this was their or the government's intent.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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