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Islamic Charities Under Closer Scrutiny

Moves to tighten state control over Islamic charities in Syria are being seen as an attempt to curb the growth of Muslim extremism, or at least to allow the authorities to impose the kind of restrictions that already apply to non-religious groups.

On October 23, the Ministry of Religious Affairs issued an order requiring anyone working in a clerical role, such as imams or prayer-leaders at mosques and teachers at religious institutions, to step down from any official post they might hold in charitable institutions and associations.

As a result, at least 12 individuals, including leading religious figures such as Salah Keftaro and Abdul Salam Rageh of the Al-Ansar Association and Husam Farfor of the Al-Fatah Association, have been forced to give up posts on various charitable boards and associations.

“I received a call from the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs on October 25, and when I arrived there, I found members of other associations who had also been called to meet the minister, Diala Haj Aref,” said one former member of a charity’s board. “We were told we were being fired and that we should name replacements immediately, or else they would take that decision.”

The religious affairs ministry’s instruction said the aim was to ensure such individuals devoted themselves entirely to their religious duties, but the purge seems to have gone further than staffing changes – a number of Islamic associations have been dissolved.

In a separate directive, officials from the ministry notified female teachers at mosques around Damascus that they needed to obtain permission from the security services or risk having their classes cancelled.

Until recently, religious institutions in Syria came under the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, but about a month and a half ago, they were placed under the control of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

The former charity board member said he suspected that both ministries were acting on the orders of the powerful National Security Office, and that the tightening up of the rules reflected increasing concern about the influence that religious associations wield.

This review of policy may have been prompted by the September 27 car bomb near a security office in Damascus that left 17 dead and 14 others injured. Syrian officials blamed the attack, one of the deadliest in Syria for more than a decade, on a militant group called Fatah al-Islam.

“That event forced the government to rethink its support for Islamic groups,” said an analyst who asked to remain anonymous.

Fatah al-Islam is a radical Sunni group that hit the international headlines when it clashed with the Lebanese army last year at Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli.

In a November 6 broadcast on Syrian TV, 11 alleged members of the group said it was behind the bombing.

In the course of the televised confessions, Abdul Baqi al-Hussein, described as Fatah al-Islam’s security chief in Syria, said his radical views had been shaped while he was studying at Al-Fatah al-Islami Institute, a religious university in Damascus. (The similarity between the institute’s title and the Fatah al-Islami appears to be coincidental.)

According to Hussein, “The institute attracts many Arab and foreign students who hold extremist views.”

On November 10, the institute released a statement denying any connection with the bombing and reiterating that it was firmly against the teaching of fundamentalist views.

Some analysts believe the Syrian authorities are keen to be seen by the international community to be combating Islamic radicalism, especially given their hopes of a better relationship with the incoming administration of president-elect Barack Obama.

“The government hasn’t done anything to face up to rising fundamentalism and its role in playing on the emotions of Syrians and leading them toward extremism,” said Wael Sawwah, a member of the secular Arab League Rationalist Party.

Until recently, secular groups in Syria believed that President Bashar al-Assad’s administration gave preference to the growing religious community, rather than those who support the values of the traditionally secular state.

According to the religious affairs ministry website, as of the end of 2007 there were around 1,250 civil associations in Syria, of which some 540 identified themselves as Islamic charities.

By contrast, independent political parties and groups that promote human rights and equality for women are frequently denied a license to operate.

The former charity board member argues that the current government has tried to play both sides off against each other.

“The regime plays all sections of society so it can crack down on all of them,” he said. “They tell a religious institution, ‘we’re with you but the West has put pressure on us’. They tell the secularists, “we’re with you but the religious institutions have put pressure on us’, and then they tell the minorities, ‘we’re with you but the majority groups have put pressure on us’. That gives everyone the illusion that they are threatened by other groups, and that the regime is their protector.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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