New law stiffens penalties for preaching without license: ongoing restriction of freedom of religion without countering incitement to violence and discrimination

Press Release

15 June 2014

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) is concerned by recently issued Law 51/2014 regulating sermons and religious lessons in mosques, seeing in it a continuation of policies designed to curb freedom of religion and enforce a legal monopoly on the right to express opinions about Islam as the official religion, except within the bounds sanctioned by the official religious authorities, which are part of the Egyptian state.

Article 5 of the new law sets forth a prison term of no less than one month and no more than one year and/or a fine of no less than LE20,000 and no more than LE50,000 for any person who violates Article 2 of the law, which prohibits any person from preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Endowments or the main office of al-Azhar; the penalty is doubled in the event of repeat offense.

“The new law stiffening penalties on unlicensed preaching is the continuation of decades of state policies designed to restrict the religious sphere, ostensibly to counter ‘extremist trends’ that politically exploit religion, based on the argument that state control of every mosque keeps religious discourse in line with the views of al-Azhar,” said Amr Ezzat, a researcher and officer with the EIPR’s Freedom of Religion and Belief Program. “These policies have had the opposite effect, promoting the ideas of these trends in both the political and religious sphere. In fact, they have wide currency among students and professors at Azhar University and among imams employed by the Endowments Ministry. These policies themselves constitute the political exploitation of religion. At the same time, the state has failed to play its fundamental role in protecting rights and liberties from religious and sectarian incitement and advocacy of discrimination. This is what officials at al-Azhar and the Endowments Ministry are involved in, with their repeated appeals and support of discrimination against Baha’is or the Shia confession.”

The new law is an extension of Law 272/1959 and its amendments, regulating the Ministry of Endowments. That law gives the ministry the right to administer all mosques or bring them under direct ministry control, and supervise the religious activities of any mosque not subordinate to the ministry. The law mandates prison terms and fines for any person who preaches or teaches in a mosque without a permit from the ministry, restricting freedom of religion and expression and the right to worship in accordance with rites or opinions that differ from those of the Endowments Ministry.

Law 238/1996 amending the Ministry of Endowments law set forth a prison term of no more than one month and a fine of no less than LE100 and no more than LE300 for any person who preaches or gives religious lessons without a license from the ministry. These penalties have been substantially stiffened in the new law.

EIPR reiterates that any policies and laws on religion must favor freedom of religion and belief and the freedom to express these beliefs, both individual and collective, in the form of an assembly or association, without undermining other rights and liberties or inciting to violence or discrimination against adherents of another religion or faith. Various associations and institutions should therefore be allowed to preach and give religious lessons, in or out of houses of worship, without restriction by the state or the official religious establishment. The state’s fundamental role is to put in place policies to counter and hold individuals accountable for the promotion of religious discrimination and sectarian incitement.

Adli Mansour, the Former Interim President, issued the new law by presidential decree on 5 June 2014, only days before leaving office. The law continues the policies of the Ministry of Endowment  in the Beblawi and Mehleb governments, both of which made heavy use of laws allowing them to monopolize religious activities in mosques in tandem with a broad security campaign and decrees mandating administrative sanctions for imams belonging to dissident political movements.

EIPR will soon issue a study containing an analysis of state policies in mosque administration and religious activity, as well as recommendations for actions that conform to provisions for freedom of religion and belief in the constitution and international rights conventions.