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Neighbors versus ministry: Who appoints and replaces Imams?

Members of the local congregation pray at the Al-Khayar Mosque in Sana'a's Maeen neighborhood on Hayel Street.

Ever since the Houthis took over Sana'a on Sept. 21, spectacular photos of its members relaxing in the living-rooms, beds, and pools of Islah Party members were circulated on social media. At the same time, Yemen's press widely reported on the Houthis' takeover of several state-run media outlets. Similar events unfolded at mosques in Sana'a, including the Al-Norain Mosque, which has become an issue of controversy in local media.

Hamzah Mones, who prays at the Al-Nourain Mosque in Sana'a's Jawlat Saba neighborhood, claims the stories surrounding the mosque are untrue. "What happened in Al-Nourain Mosque is different from what the media reported," he maintained.

"On Sept. 26, an Ansar Allah [Houthi] preacher entered the mosque with four other armed men, took to the pulpit and gave a sermon," he said. Claims that people tryied to stop the Houthis from entering the mosque are untrue, he said.

Mones, who claims to be politically neutral, remembers that "the Houthi preacher urged people to unite and avoid violence." Even though his sermon appeared unbiased, Mones said that some left the mosque once "the Houthi preacher" entered.

"The [Houthi] preacher began and ended his sermon without mentioning sectarian or religious beliefs, or differences between Sunnis and Shias," according to Mones, who described the preacher as "politically neutral," and "popular." "The preacher's sermon was met with praise because he steered clear from politics. He never mentioned a political opponent or supporter, he only spoke about the Quran and the Hadith."

Mohammad Al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthis' Political Office, confirmed that on Sept. 26--the first Friday after the Houthis' took control over Sana'a's streets--Karam Al-Ansi showed up at the Al-Norain mosque, giving that Friday's sermon. Ever since, he has been preaching every Friday, according to Qaid Mohammad Qaid, the manager of the government's endowment office.

Al-Norain Mosque has been known to be Islah affiliated, and its former Imam Bashir Zanad Al-Wasem has also been accused of giving politically-biased sermons. "The previous preacher used to refer to Houthi supporters as 'agents,' and said inflammatory things about them and their group," complained Abdullah Al-Seraji, a Houthi supporter in the neighborhood. "He never considered the fact that people at the mosque and in the neighborhood had different [political and religious] affiliations."

As a consequence, he explained, the neighborhood became increasingly divided. "It effected the spirit of brotherhood between us," he said. In an effort to improve the situation, Al-Saeraji drafted a letter, or "petition" as he called it, which he asked neighbors to sign. "I ended up with 30 signatures and we sent the petition to Ansar Allah's [Houthis'] popular committees." Houthis then sent Karam Al-Ansi, who Al-Seraji described as "a preacher with no political affiliations, who knows the dangers of sowing conflict between neighbors."

Al-Bukhaiti confirmed Al-Seraji's story. "Ansar Allah [the Houthis] replaced the mosque's preacher because they received a letter saying that he was inciting people against Houthis, calling them non-believers." Since most of the residents around the mosque were Houthis, Al-Bukhaiti argued that the preacher's rhetoric constituted a threat to "the peace in the neighborhood."

Whenever the Houthis receive these letters, Al-Bukhaiti said, they are forwarded to Sheikh Al-Murtada Zaid Al-Muhatwari, a prominent Houthi sheikh at Sana'a's Al-Badr Mosque. Al-Muhatwari then selects an Imam, often one of his former students, who is then sent to the mosque in question.

Al-Norain's current Imam, Al-Ansi, is described by Al-Bukhaiti as highly qualified. After all, "he has been a student of [the Houthis' founder] Hussein Bader Al-Deen Al-Houthi in Sa'ada and is trained in Islamic law."

Not everyone in Al-Norain's neighborhood shares Al-Bukhaiti's optimism, however.

Alaa Najeeb, a local resident who frequents Al-Norain mosque, complains that ever since Al-Ansi began preaching, the mosque has been manned by armed Houthis.

"Imagine you went to the mosque on a Friday and saw a Houthi Imam preach from the pulpit while armed men manned the mosque's gates. You feel like you are in a prison camp," said Najeeb.

According to Najeeb, many people in the neighborhood have since stopped attending prayers at Al-Norain Mosque. Given that most residents in the area are Houthi, however, no one has dared to criticize the group or the new Imam. "Even Islah members living in the area are following their leaders' advice to not cause any problems," Najeeb said.

Indeed, even Sheikh Abdullah Sater, a prominent Islah figure and head of the Islah Party's Social Affairs Department, thinks that Al-Ansi should stay. Although he considers the change of Imams at Al-Norain Mosque "a mistake," committed by his "Ansar Allah brothers," he maintains that "as long as the people like him, there is no problem. We personally do not have any problems with him," he said.

While Sater opposes the idea that Friday sermons may be used for the benefit of a political party or to further a sectarian purpose, he admits that "in many cases the preacher is part of a political party, and he uses his position to promote his party or to say negative things about his opponents."

Sater thinks that "the media has blown this incident out of proportion." He critically remarked that "they talked about armed men who broke into mosques and forcefully imposed their preachers onto the congregation, but in reality, what happened was much less than that."

Al-Norain is not the only mosque that has witnessed sermons being given by Houthi preachers since Friday Sept. 26.

Yasser Mohammed, a 23-year-old resident in Maeen neighborhood along Hayel Street reported that after the Houthis took over Sana'a, that a "foreign" Imam showed up at the neighborhood's Al-Khayar Mosque and led Friday prayer.

"The sermon was not at all about politics," he said. Instead "it was about the unity of the Yemeni people and that we should stick together. This surprised people," he said.

Ibrahim Ussama Al-Wajih, a 22-year-old student who lives in the neighborhood surrounding Al-Khayar Mosque, told the Yemen Times what happened that day. Due to the Houthi affiliation and influence of his family, Al-Wajih explained, Houthi leaders called his uncle, who in turn called the neighborhood's "community leader" to ask whether the Houthis could send an Imam for the Friday prayer.

"The community leader, Ali Qasim Surur, spoke to the mosque's Imam, Ali Al-Ghubari, and he agreed," said Al-Wajih. In a voluntary attempt to protect the Houthi Imam, Al-Wajih armed himself that Friday and took position close to the mosque--"to ensure its security," he said.

Al-Wajih's support seemed unnecessary in light of the ten armed Houthi members that accompanied the Imam.

According to Al-Sater "there was coordination between Houthis and some mosques in which they wanted their preachers to preach." However, he maintained that there was no reason for any concern. "The Houthis' preacher gave a sermon that was in line with the group's ideology, which provoked some people in the mosque," he said. Al-Sater himself seems not to take issue with what happened, pointing out that "Houthi preachers were peaceful."

Unlike the incident at Al-Norain, the Houthi preacher did not stay at Al-Khayar Mosque, but left after his one-time sermon. Al-Wajih does not mind if the Islah-affiliated Imam continues to preach, "as long as he lets us [the Houthis] pray there." Al-Wajih nevertheless thinks that if "people in the neighborhood would agree to replace the current Imam," then he should leave.

According to Qaid from the Ministry of Endowment, replacing an Imam is not as easy as Al-Wajih makes it seem. "It is within the ministry's jurisdiction to send preachers to every mosque," he said. If local residents wish to change their mosque's Imam, they can send a letter specifying their complaints, to the ministry's undersecretary of mosque affairs. While there is no law detaililng how the ministry should handle these letters, Qaid said that ministry staff are likely to comply with citizens' request.

Most mosques in Sana'a, including the Al-Norain and Al-Khayar mosques, are under the supervision of the Ministry of Endowment, according to Qaid. The ministry pays both Imams there YR5,000 ($23) a month. The rest--and large majority--of their income comes from the Islah Party, said Qaid, who was unable to specify how much the party pays. In the case of Al-Norain and Al-Khayar mosques, the Islah party is not only responsible for paying for salaries but also Qurans, furniture, and water. Free electricity is provided by the ministry, Qaid stated.

Qaid condemns the Houthis' behavior, saying that "it is not their jurisdiction to appoint or remove Imams or to impose their Imams on anybody else."

"The Houthis forcefully imposed their Imam onto the mosque's congregation," he said. While they never fired any weapons, Al-Ansi was accompanied by armed men, which Qaid interpreted as a threat of force.

In spite of his criticism, Qaid explains that in an effort to maintain peace in Sana'a the ministry will not respond to these recent events. While Al-Ansi is hence allowed to stay Imam at the Al-Norain Mosque, the ministry is not paying the YR5000 they had given to his predecessor.

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Publication:Yemen Times (Sana'a, Yemen)
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Nov 25, 2014
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