The Ministry of Waqf’s (religious endowments) decision to ban the longtime practice of cash donations in boxes in Egypt’s mosques came into effect this week, said ministry spokesperson Abdallah Hassan.
“Beginning this week, imams are required to remove all donation boxes from mosques,” said Hassan, adding that the ministry has also banned requests for cash donations for charity or maintenance works.
Hassan said the decision, issued on D1 November, was part of the government’s strategy to develop a digital economy. “The government is gradually reducing the use of cash for transactions among citizens and institutions, and the Ministry of Waqf is part of the policy,” said Hassan. “Henceforth, people will be able to donate money to mosques through banks.”
Donations made in mosques are used by imams to repair and maintain buildings and offer social support that can include paying for medical treatment, paying the school fees of poor children, and supporting orphans.
Hassan said under the new system money can be deposited in one of two accounts at the National Bank of Egypt (NBE). One account is dedicated to mosque maintenance, the other to charity work.
“One of the reasons the donation boxes are being removed,” explained Hassan, “is that in the absence of Ministry of Waqf supervision there was no transparency on how the money was used.”
Minister of Waqf Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa said the only figures the ministry has on mosque donation boxes is that they generated around LE6 million in 2014, and that the total had climbed to LE30 million in 2019.
Gomaa makes no secret of the way some of the receipts from donation boxes were used to finance extremist and terrorist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and in some cases directly funded terrorist operations. “The new system will help dry up sources of funding for terrorist activities, and make sure donations are directed to maintain mosques and fund charitable activities,” Gomaa said in a TV interview.
Popular Islamic cleric Khaled Al-Guindi told Al-Ahram newspaper that the decision also targets corruption in mosques. “Because these donations fell outside official supervision, they have often been subject to misuse. The new policy aims to support the image of mosques as holy places, free from any forms of shady practice,” he said.
Hisham Abdel-Aziz, head of the Ministry of Waqf’s Religious Sector, clarified that mosques will still be able to accept in-kind donations, though they now need to be registered.
“People who used to donate carpets, electric fans or other such goods can still do so, via a committee in each mosque that will be responsible for receiving the donations, registering them, and checking that they come from legal sources,” said Abdel-Aziz.
Sufi mosques will be exempted from the ban on donation boxes. “The Ministry of Waqf already receives 90 per cent of the donations made in these mosques, while the Sufi order receives the remainder,” said Gomaa. “The funds are spent on helping the poor and needy who live in the districts surrounding the mosques.”
The decision to ban donation boxes has been condemned by many. Leftist MP Diaaeddin Dawoud said it would result in a sharp drop in donations. It is unreasonable, he said, to expect people on average and low incomes, who would usually donate modest sums, to go through the rigmarole of transferring money via a bank in order to donate LE10 or LE20.
“The few people who do donate large amounts of money already give it directly to an imam, so the result of the changes will simply be that mosques will lose the donations of those on middle and low incomes.”
Islamic thinker Reda Tiama agrees. “The majority of donors are on low incomes and donate small sums, particularly during Friday prayers and the holy month of Ramadan, but this money represents 90 per cent of mosque donations. These people will never go to banks, as required under the new system, to donate money.”
“A more sensible alternative,” says Tiama, “is for the ministry to appoint a committee in each mosque to be responsible for supervising donations and reporting them to the ministry.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.