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Egypt's revolutionary cleric suspended over sermon

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SARAH EL DEEB | April 9, 2013 03:54 PM EST | AP

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CAIRO — A Muslim cleric who became known as "the preacher of the revolution" for his sermons in Tahrir Square during the uprising against ousted President Hosni Mubarak and subsequent anti-government protests said he was suspended Tuesday by a ministerial decree following a citizen's complaint about his criticism of the current Islamist president.

Sheik Mazhar Shahin told The Associated Press that an inspector from the Religious Endowments Ministry, which oversees mosque preachers, informed him that he was been suspended while the ministry investigates the complaint.

Sheikh Salamah Abdel-Qawi, a spokesman for the ministry, didn't return calls seeking comment.

Shahin, the preacher at the Omar Makram Mosque, located in Tahrir Square, read to the AP the complaint against him, which accused him of acting "like a TV station or opposition paper" and deepening divisions by criticizing President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. He said his position has already been filled by a replacement.

The complaint was prompted by a sermon he gave the last Friday in March in which he warned against Brotherhood control over state institutions including the police, military and the Islamic institute of Al-Azhar. He also urged Morsi in the sermon to reach out to opponents, citing traditions saying that Islam's Prophet Muhammad even conferred with rivals at times.

"The sermon went against your Excellency's instructions to preachers of not using the pulpit for political or partisan purposes," the plaintiff said in the complaint, addressing the minister. "I ask you to take the necessary measures about what Sheikh Mazhar Shahin has done by turning the pulpit of the mosque into something of a satellite TV or an opposition paper."

The plaintiff also complained over comments Shahin made in response to radical clerics who said the Pyramids should be destroyed because they were pagan monuments. Shahin responded that the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure in Mecca toward which Muslims pray five times a day and to which they make annual pilgrimage, was itself built by pre-Islamic inhabitants of Mecca and the prophet never ruled to destroy it. The plaintiff said this was "sensationalism."

Shahin said his sermon was specifically about seeking consensus, and that he relied on the prophet's traditions to make his point.

"Is speaking in the defense of state institutions and about seeking advice from experts a crime or a religious violation for me to be suspended?" Shahin told AP. "This is a farce – or is this settling scores and getting rid of me because of my critical position of the Brotherhood?"

Shahin emerged as a voice respected by revolutionary groups – including leftists and secular protesters – with his sermons to the crowds in Tahrir throughout the 18 days of the uprising against Mubarak and after. He was critical of Egypt's military rulers, who were in power for nearly 17 months after Mubarak's fall, and was even summoned for questioning then for inciting to end their rule.

During last year's presidential elections, Shahin backed Morsi, costing the cleric some popularity among youth groups who campaigned against the Islamist candidate. Still, in recent months, Shahin has become critical of the president. He recently hosted a politician under investigation for inciting violence, joining him on the mosque's doorstep to speak to the press.

Morsi's opponents accuse the Brotherhood, from which the president hails, of trying to monopolize power. The group and Morsi's aides deny the charge and say opponents are using the media to try to destabilize the government.