Kristine L Ming

Jerusalem neighborhoods reach Muezzin agreement without politicians

Tawfik Elayan, the muezzin of the Rahman mosque in Beit Safafa in south Jerusalem, closes his eyes and begins to recite the Islamic call to prayer which reverberates around the neighborhood calling the Muslim faithful to pray.

But the Rahman mosque, along with the other four mosques in Beit Safafa, is somewhat unique, in that its leadership and that of the broader neighborhood has come to understandings with the communal leadership of nearby Gilo to reduce the volume of the call to prayer broadcast over the loudspeakers on the mosque’s minaret five times a day.

The acrimonious political dispute that has erupted around concerns with the call to prayer in recent weeks has focused on legislation introduced by Bayit Yehudi MK Moti Yogev, backed by MKs from several parties, which would ban the use of loudspeakers by all religious institutions.

Residents of mixed Jewish and Arab cities, and of Jewish neighborhoods abutting Arab ones, have long complained that the call to prayer from mosques close by are excessively loud and wake people up in the very early hours of the morning when the first of the five calls to prayer is issued.

Jerusalem in particular is a flash point where activists in Pisgat Ze’ev and Neve Ya’akov in the north of the city have lobbied hard to have the volume of the loudspeakers on mosques in Shuafat and Beit Hanina lowered, due to what they say is the unacceptable noise that wakes many people between four and five o’clock in the morning.

Such efforts have not been successful however, and Yogev introduced his legislation to deal with the issue.

But when several years ago residents of Gilo in south Jerusalem started complaining to the police about the loud volume of the call to prayer coming from Beit Safafa, things were handled differently.

It was the police who initially brought the two sides together, approaching the leadership of Gilo’s Community Administration and that of Beit Safafa and asking them to sit down together and discuss the issue.

“So we sat together, we told them that the call to prayer is a commandment from God and that the call for prayer has been issued here for centuries,” said Mohammed Elayan, head of Beit Safafa’s Community Administration and one of the neighborhoods four mukhtars.

Elayan pointed out that Beit Safafa had existed before Gilo was built and insisted that it was important for the call to prayer be heard around the neighborhood so that all the residents would hear it, but also stated that the mosques in the area only began using loudspeakers in 1962 when the neighborhood was connected to the electricity grid.

“But as Muslims, we understand and respect our neighbors in a moral way, as is required by the Koran and we have to understand that some neighbors were disturbed by the call to prayer,” continued Muhammad.

“We want to find a solution and have dialogue between us in Beit Safafa and our neighbors in Gilo, because we want this area to remain safe and secure and we don’t want the police to arrest our young men and muezzins and confiscate the mosque loudspeakers.”

The dialogue and meetings between the two community administrations to find a mutually agreeable solution lasted four years, until an agreement for a permanent solution was reached some four months ago.

The plan adopted is that the call be broadcast over smaller, less powerful loudspeakers which will be placed at several points within the neighborhood and purposefully directed away Gilo. This it is hoped will significantly reduce the volume heard in the Jewish neighborhood.

It has yet to be implemented however since the requisite funds, at least NIS 50,000 for each mosque, have not yet been obtained, although Minister for Jerusalem Ze’ev Elkin has agreed to fund a pilot for two mosques.

The communal leaders are seeking to have the system implemented for all five mosques at once however, fearing that implementation for just two mosques will not solve the problem and will thereby scupper the solution altogether.

While discussions were underway, Beit Safafa’s community leaders did accede to requests from Gilo to reduce the volume of the loudspeakers until a permanent solution was found.

Gilo Community Administration director Ofer Ayoubey, one of the leading figures in the intercommunal dialogue on the issue, said that although the situation has improved, it is still erratic and the agreed upon solution is still required.

“No-one wants to be woken up at four o’clock in the morning, or have their kids and family woke up,” said Ayoubey.  

“But we have good relations with Beit Safafa and we were in touch with Muhammad Alayan … It was very hard to arrange the meeting, but I convinced Muhammed that the issue wasn’t about religion, and that no one wanted to hurt their religious practice but just wanted to stop the disturbance.”

Ayoubey noted that he belongs to the Likud party but opposes Yogev’s law and was critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has supported the bill, saying that the prime minister had come to the issue “with bad intentions.”

But he said that he believed politicians from both sides of the argument had exploited the issue.

“The Arab MKs waited for this, it brings them to the media forefront, it’s a opportunity for extremism and to enflame things on the ground,” he said, adding however that he believed the new legislation to be unnecessary and that enforcing existing laws would have the same effect.

Mohammad was of a similar mind.

“We didn’t want a religious war. The Koran says one must not interfere with one’s neighbor. This is the true faith, not what the extremists say, and I don’t listen to the extremists.”

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