STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Afghan ministry that governs religious affairs has announced what some are calling a three strikes policy for preachers accused of inciting violence with their Friday sermons. This is an attempt to reign in imams, as they're called, who routinely condemn the U.S. presence in Afghanistan or speak in favor of the Taliban. The United States is also working to convince Afghanistan's clerics to moderate their messages. And recently a White House special envoy made a visit deep into Taliban territory. NPR's Quil Lawrence went along.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Despite the rapid growth of the media in Afghanistan, many still get their news and commentary on Friday at the mosque.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: The Friday sermon usually has one religious lesson, but another section reserved for current events. The message on one recent Friday at a central Kabul mosque was about corruption.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: The imam is railing against corrupt politicians, but it was tame compared to what often comes over the loudspeakers. In rural areas, the sermons sometimes directly support the Taliban. Regular rants against the government and its American allies prompted the Ministry of Religious Affairs to put mosques, nationwide, on notice.

ABDUL MALIK ZEYAEE: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Abdul Malik Zeyaee, a senior ministry official says Imams - many of whom are appointed by the ministry - will get three strikes if they incite violence. First a warning, then dismissal from the post, and then - if they keep preaching - a visit from Afghanistan's security services. The Minister of Religious Affairs later said the policy was not so clear cut, but imams around Kabul are already talking about it.

Only a fraction of the hundred thousand mosques in Afghanistan are officially registered, so the impact of the new rule is questionable. But it demonstrates the level of concern - which is shared by the White House.

RASHAD HUSSAIN: If Islam is being taught in the proper way and people studying the Koran reading it, it's very obvious that the religion rejects terrorism.

LAWRENCE: Rashad Hussain is the Obama administration's special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. He was in rural Paktika Province last month, as part of a tour of Afghanistan. Hussain is a religious scholar and surprised a group of local mullahs by reciting verses of the Koran from memory.

HUSSAIN: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: The mullahs in the meeting said they agreed with Hussain completely, and thanked him politely for coming. But Hussain says he knows there are many in Afghanistan who get a different message at the mosque, and the vast majority of them are illiterate.

HUSSAIN: There's some places where people don't understand the Quran, they're not able to read and those people are exploited. And often times what's taught to them is taught to them in the name of religion, even though the religion itself rejects the idea that you can kill innocent people to achieve your objective.

LAWRENCE: A string of provocative incidents this year has made it hard for imams to keep silent. The errant burning of Quran on a U.S. base, as well as the massacre of civilians by a U.S. soldier in Kandahar.

Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, a former prime minister of Afghanistan, says it's impossible to stop preachers from speaking out.

AHMAD SHAH AHMADZAI: Your soldiers are killing. Your soldiers are doing very, very bad things there. They are stepping here on Quran. Don't torture Muslims in Afghanistan. Don't kill innocent children, women and girls.

LAWRENCE: The United Nations and the Afghan government blame the large majority of civilian deaths on the insurgents. But mullahs rarely denounce the Taliban, perhaps out of fear. This week did see a string of civilian casualties from NATO air strikes, a topic that will surely get attention at this Friday's sermons across the country.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul

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