Explainer: Egypt bans donation boxes in mosques nationwide

Zeinab El-Gundy , Sunday 14 Nov 2021

Egypt’s religious authorities have issued a decision banning the longtime practice of direct donations in boxes in mosques nationwide.

Donation boxes in mosques
Donation boxes in mosques. Al-Ahram

Citizens can now donate directly to two-official accounts at the Central Bank of Egypt opened by the Ministry of Religious Endowments.

One of the accounts is dedicated to mosque maintenance while the other is for social charity.

Many Muslim worshipers like to donate cash at mosques, as a good deed, for the repairing of mosques, or the provision of social services such as Quran recitation lessons and charitieas for surrounding community.

The country’s Ministry of Religious Endowments had ordered the mosques, particularly those that are not under its supervision, to remove the donations boxes within ten days that ended on 11 November 2021.

There are more than 140,000 officially registered mosques nationwide, Minister of Religious Endowments Mokhtar Gomaa said in September 2020.

However, the decision does not apply to mosques run by the Sufi orders.

Sufi “vows” donation boxes

Last week, the decision was met by rejection from Egypt’s Sufi orders, known for its “vows” donations boxes.

“Vows” simply means that a Muslim vows to make a donation to a mosque or a shrine of a Sufi saint or sheikh if God grants him his wish.

The practice of “vows” is very common in grand mosques like Al-Hussein Mosque or Al-Sayeda Zeinab Mosque in Islamic Cairo. It historically goes beyond religion. It is not Muslims or Christians alone who donate “vows”, but the practice has its roots in ancient Egyptian religious system.

Responding to the Sufi orders’ rejection, the religious edowments ministry said the “vows mosques” of Sufi orders’ mosques will be exempted from the decision.

The ministry also said it will issue a list of those excluded mosques within days with the names and the number of “vows boxes”.

Chairman of the Supreme Council of Sufism in Egypt Abdel-Hady El-Kasaby, who is a member of parliament, said last week there are at least 200 mosques following the Sufi orders in Egypt with revenue generated from “vows donations” reaching EGP 30 million annually.

Even before the exception given to the Sufi orders’ mosques, there had been bylaws in place that regulated its vows donation boxes.

According to those bylaws, 10 percent of total annual vows donations go to the General Sheikhdom of the Sufi Orders in Egypt while 90 percent of the donations go to the Ministry of Religious Endowments.

Why banning donations boxes in Mosques across Egypt?

There are direct economic and security reasons behind the decision of the Ministry of Religious Endowments to scrap donations boxes.

Minister Gomaa said in media statements the new regulation aims to achieve transparency and ensure the money of donations will eventually go to the mosques’ maintenance and social services.

Gomaa added that the revenues of donation boxes reached EGP 6 million only before 2014, but since modern methods in operating those boxes were applied, their revenues reached more than EGP 30 million annually right before the coronavirus pandemic.

Security reasons

Egypt has been fighting radical Islamist groups that have for decades used donation boxes in some mosques as a source of finance as there was no control or supervision on how those donations were used.

The ultra-conservative Salafi groups as well as the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which is designated as a terrorist organization in Egypt, have used the boxes for financing their activities.

Also, the mosques’ donations boxes had been a target of theft for a very long time. Organized gangs will replace the original boxes filled with money with fake empty boxes, particularly in rural areas. Some Thieves use paper clips to lift small amounts of cash from the boxes.

The religious endowment ministry and Supreme Council of Sufi Orders had in the past taken some measures to prevent these thefts, including installing cameras and filming how the boxes are emptied in the presence of a special committee from the directorate. Nevertheless, the thefts did not stop.

Now, with the new regulation, officials believe that thefts will disappear.

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