Three strikes and you're out, Afghan govt tells unruly clerics

KABUL/HERAT, Afghanistan - Afghanistan has stepped up efforts to stop clerics from inciting violence or preaching anti-government slogans in mosques, giving unruly mullahs three chances to change their ways or face dismissal and possibly jail.

In Afghanistan, where most men go to Friday prayers, sermons are a critical influence on both sides of the conflict with insurgents looking to gain support and recruits, and NATO and Afghan forces aiming to counter militant messages as Western combat troops look to pull out by the end of 2014.

A recent decree by the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs aims to dampen anti-Western and pro-insurgent messages from religious leaders at mosques whose opinions are often more trusted and valued than those of the government, which in many rural and regional areas is seen as a remote presence.

"If we encourage our people to be at peace, they accept it, and if we encourage them to do anything, they accept, because they know that whatever we tell them is according to the holy Koran and Islam," said Mawlavi Mohammad Asghar, an imam in Kabul.

Of around 126,000 mosques in Afghanistan, only about 6,000 are registered and funded by the government. The others are built by the people and their imams are supported by that neighbourhood. In rural areas where the Taliban are most active, Friday sermons are often in favour of the insurgency.

"When a mullah, who is hired by us, is in violation (of the decree), we discharge him from his job. And if he is not hired officially by us, we report to security and judicial departments to act against him," Abdul Malik Zeyaee, head of the Mosques and Religious Sites department at the ministry, told Reuters.

Afghanistan now has a three-strike approach for clerics who preach against the constitution or incite violence - first a delegation will be sent to talk to the offending imam, then a strong warning and finally the leader may face dismissal if at a registered mosque, or possibly jail if not.

But with so few officially sanctioned mosques and little government leverage over those which are not, there are strong doubts that Kabul will be able to stop anti-government messages, especially in far-flung areas where government reach is weak.

Afghans in provinces outside Kabul said they had not seen much change in the mullahs' speeches since the decree was issued a few m o nths ago.

"They speak against foreign forces in the country, they speak about violations by the government and the Taliban and they speak about anything. People are listening to them carefully," said Hajji Khoshdil, a 45-year-old resident of Herat city near the border with Iran.

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