Hamas preachers pushed out of West Bank mosques

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NABLUS, West Bank, Nov 9 (Reuters) The green bulletin board outside the Fatima az-Zahra mosque in Nablus was once plastered with notices. Now it stands tattered and empty.

The board is a symbol of a Palestinian power struggle in the West Bank, where the long-dominant Fatah movement is cracking down on preachers linked to its Islamist rivals from Hamas -- clerics who until recently papered the mosque noticeboard with news of Hamas events and charities have been effectively purged.

''There used to be sermons here about going back to religion and resisting the Israeli occupation,'' said Amin Saqqa, a taxi driver who dropped in to the Fatima mosque between fares for his noon prayers last week. ''Now there is no politics.'' The change has swept the West Bank and notably Nablus, where Hamas has been politically strong, since the Islamist movement routed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah-dominated forces to seize control of the smaller Gaza Strip in June.

Fatah, led by Abbas since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, has seen its support eroded over years. Hamas's criticism of graft and drift under Fatah, its violent rejection of Arafat's deals with Israel and an appeal to Islamic tradition, helped Hamas win a parliamentary election last year.

But bitterness deepened sharply in June when Hamas seized Gaza, sparking a Fatah backlash against the Islamists in the West Bank.

Abbas retains control there and has used the rift with Hamas to seek foreign aid and reopen talks about peace with Israel, both previously frozen when Hamas was in government.

As Fatah loyalists have found themselves under pressure in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Hamas says hundreds of its supporters have been held at times in the West Bank.

''MODERATION'' Among other measures, Fatah-dominated authorities have driven out scores of volunteer preachers recruited by Hamas whom it accuses of delivering politically inflammatory sermons.

While the government has limited powers to dismiss full-time imams, it has sidelined some of those whom it views as close to Hamas by relegating them to less frequented mosques, officials from Fatah and Hamas camps say.

''Our main priority is to counter the negative version of Islam promoted by Hamas,'' said Hassan Hilali, who was appointed in June to oversee religious affairs in Nablus for Abbas's Fatah-run Palestinian Authority.

''We want to send a message of moderation in the mosques.'' But Hilali's sacked predecessor, Hamas supporter Fayyad Aghbar, dismissed the new line in the mosques as a deviation: ''There is one Islam from God but they want an Islam that compromises with the Israelis,'' Aghbar told Reuters.

''Palestinian land is the land of God.'' Aghbar acknowledges he appointed scores of Hamas-aligned volunteer preachers during his tenure but says this was to fill vacancies rather than to promote a political line. Those volunteers have mostly been fired, his successor Hilali said.

Fatah has in turn accused Hamas of sidelining Fatah-linked imams and clerics in the Gaza Strip -- a charge the Islamist group denies.

The numbers concerned are smaller, given Hamas's greater influence in the past in Gaza mosques.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, appointed by Abbas in June, has urged imams to stay out of politics and has recruited 800 new clerics and other mosque officials.

But over half of the West Bank's nearly 1,500 mosques still have no imam, who leads prayers, or muezzin, the official who makes the call to prayer, Palestinian Religious Affairs Minister Jamal Bawatni told Reuters.

Hamas blames the shortage on years of neglect of religious affairs by the secular-minded Fatah. Fatah says many older imams have died or retired, while more mosques have been built.

A handful of private West Bank religious centres are training preachers. Funded by Western donors, Nablus's independent Islamic Centre for Sufism -- a mystical form of Islam -- holds classes to train prospective preachers and imams.

''It is wrong to convince people that religion is Hamas and Hamas is Islam,'' said course director Saed Sharaf, a clean shaven imam who says his wife prefers him without the beard that is often the badge of Hamas followers and their clerics.

Every Saturday, some 30 Muslims -- many of them women who cover their heads and wear long tunics -- gather at Sharaf's centre for lessons on Sufi spirituality and preaching tips.

One of Sharaf's students, 40-year-old Abdul Aziz, says he plans to use his new-found religious expertise to preach in mosques. He denies any links to Fatah, though his comments about defeating Hamas-style political religion echo the party's line: ''Islam is not violent,'' he said. ''I want to preach good Islam -- moderate and non-partisan.'' REUTERS AM BD0845

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