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Egypt violating right to worship by imposing prayer restriction in Ramadan says HRW

Muslim worshippers pray on Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Destiny) during the holy month of Ramadan, at the Al-Azhar Mosque in the Egyptian capital Cairo, on April 27, 2022 [MOHAMED HOSSAM/AFP via Getty Images]
Muslim worshippers pray on Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Destiny) during the holy month of Ramadan, at the Al-Azhar Mosque in the Egyptian capital Cairo, on April 27, 2022 [MOHAMED HOSSAM/AFP via Getty Images]

Egypt's Ministry of Religious Endowments should end all arbitrary restrictions on religious gatherings, prayers and practices during the final days of Ramadan and the upcoming Eid celebrations, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today. Earlier this month the ministry announced a ban on special Ramadan night prayers and imposed restrictions on celebrations during Eid Al-Fitr, the religious holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan.

Dr Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, Egypt's minister of religious endowments, used social media on 15 April to issue a complete prohibition on the Itikaf practice and Tahajjud prayers, Islamic rituals commonly performed during the last evenings of Ramadan. Itikaf involves spending the last ten nights of Ramadan in a mosque. The Tahajjud prayer is an evening prayer performed in the middle of the night, often during these overnight visits. Many Muslims consider the Itikaf prayers particularly blessed during Ramadan.

This week the ministry appeared to retract its decision. According to a statement issued on Monday evening, the ministry decided to open "all large and university mosques, in which Friday prayers are held, and which have imams from the endowments ministry to lead worshippers in the Tahajjud prayer, starting from the night of the 27th until the end of the blessed month."

READ: Cairo's Ramadan street feasts return after coronavirus suspension

Tarawih prayers were also restricted to 30 minutes, after which mosques would be closed until the dawn prayer the next day. Meanwhile, the ministry banned Eid Al-Fitr prayers from being performed in squares, saying they will be held in major mosques with a unified sermon lasting no more than ten minutes, amid threats of dismissal and punishment for those who violate these rules.

"Egyptian officials have imposed unacceptable restrictions on worshipers as to where and when they are allowed to pray this Ramadan and Eid," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW. "Limits on religious practices should only be allowed if they are strictly necessary for public health and safety."

The restrictions on prayer have been harshly imposed, notes HRW. On 21 April, security officials detained a journalist, Safa Al-Korbiji, a former employee at the Radio and Television magazine, after she posted a video to social media complaining about the time limits imposed on the Eid al-Fitr sermon and calling for the sermon to last seven hours. On April 24, officials took her before the State Security Prosecution, where prosecutors accused her of spreading false news and joining an outlawed group.

In its condemnation, the rights group cited article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It states that 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, and which guarantees the free practice of religion was also cited as well as Article 64 of Egypt's 2014 Constitution recognising the right to freely practice religious rituals.

"These restrictions on the free exercise of religion appear to be completely arbitrary, yet another display of the Egyptian government's lack of tolerance for free expression across the board," Stork said.

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