STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The Palestinian president is making moves for his political security. Mahmoud Abbas is in a power struggle with the Islamist group Hamas. And in the West Bank, the land that Abbas still controls, he's firing preachers affiliated with Hamas. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he's also striking at another source of the group's power. He is closing many Islamist charities.
NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Normally during Ramadan, the Al Waroud or Roses Social Charity in the West Bank village of Berze(ph) would be bustling with activity. Al Waroud provides for nearly a hundred local people, all orphans and poor families, by soliciting cash donations and by selling baked goods and other homemade foods. But these days, Al Waroud's offices and kitchens are all but deserted. The Palestinian Authority has ordered this nonprofit and dozens like it across the West Bank to shut down, citing procedural violations.
Ms. MAZUZE ABDUL RAHMAN(ph) (Director, Al Waroud): (Through translator) It is obvious that the decision to close our charity is a political decision.
WESTERVELT: Mazuze Abdul Rahman is Al Waroud's director. She says the closure is part of an illegal and excessive crackdown by the ruling Fatah movement on all Islamist charities - aid groups that have traditionally been a power base for Fatah's rival, Hamas.
Ms. ABDUL RAHMAN: (Through translator) We have no political affiliation to Fatah or to Hamas or to any other party. Our objective here is to help the poor. Am I doing anything political? I view it as a charitable task.
WESTERVELT: The Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority began clamping down on Islamist charities after Fatah was routed in the Gaza Strip by Hamas fighters in June. In addition to closing Islamist nonprofits, President Abbas' office for the first time is exerting tight control over zakat, or alms-giving. Donations to the poor, especially during this holy month, is a pillar of the Islamic faith. From now on, the Palestinian Authority recently decreed, all Ramadan collections in the West Bank must go through its religious ministry. Sheikh Jamal Bawatina is the West Bank's newly appointed Minister of Religious Affairs.
Sheikh JAMAL BAWATINA (Minister of Religious Affairs): (Through translator) Charities now have to go through my office because many of these charities have been exploited for interests other than the poor. The poor are often the last ones to find out where the money has really been going.
WESTERVELT: Fatah also has cracked down on mosques, a central power base for Hamas. Nearly 70 percent of the imams or preachers in West Bank mosques are affiliated with Hamas, and they helped the Islamist group get its supporters elected to top posts in scores of local elections across the West Bank.
Sheikh Bawatina sits wearing a long flowing robe and round red-and-white sheikh's hat. He says he recently gathered almost all of the West Bank preachers together in the Ramallah cultural center and made his new religious guidelines for sermons crystal clear: no more politics.
Sheikh BAWATINA: (Through translator) The sermons had become like news bulletins. The mosques are not places for political messages. God's name is the only name that should pass people's lips in the mosque, not the name of some factional leader or party.
WESTERVELT: The sheik claims wide compliance with his orders but its not clear preachers have really obeyed, even though their jobs are at stake. On orders from the president's office, Minister Sheikh Bawatina has fired dozens of local religious affairs officials who'd been promoted by or are affiliated with Hamas.
Sheikh Hassan Safi El-Masalmeh(ph) was just sacked from his job as the Bethlehem area director of alkaw(ph), or religious endowments. The reason cited: misused of the company car. Sheikh Masalmeh says it was simply because of his politically tinged sermons and support for Hamas.
Sheikh HASSAN SAFI EL-MASALMEH: (Through translator) Preaching has nothing to do with Hamas. I preach Islam, not a certain faction, but Islam is the way of life for Muslims. Therefore in our sermons we talk about political issues, social issues and economic issues.
WESTERVELT: The 25 year veteran of the religious trust says bitterly, I was working for the trust before there was a Palestinian Authority, before Fatah and before Hamas. The sheik who is also a popular Bethlehem City councilman is now suing to get his job back and he says to restore his good name.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Bethlehem.
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