Interior Ministry Official: We Have 60 Employees Watching Muslim Clergymen

Official tells court ministry receives reports from 'the field' about family life, ethical behavior of imams.

The Interior Ministry employs 60 people whose job is to keep an eye on Muslim clergymen, according to testimony given in the Tel Aviv Labor Court last week.

Yaakov Salameh, who heads the ministry's department of religious communities, told the court that his inspectors receive reports from people in "the field" about the family life and ethical behavior of imams serving in local mosques.

The court was hearing a suit by Sheikh Ahmed Abu Ajawa against the ministry's refusal to appoint him as imam of a state-supported Jaffa mosque.

Asked by Abu Ajawa's lawyer, Michael Sfard, about what such reports include, Salameh replied that he expects information, for instance, about the cleric's fidelity to his wife, because "a clergyman is supposed to reconcile couples, make peace between them and unite families."

Asked whether he would also want to know if the cleric beat his children, Salameh replied, "I'm very happy about any information that arrives about any candidate." He said the Shin Bet security service is also obligated to inform him if it has relevant information about a candidate.

The tender committee that unanimously rejected Abu Ajawa appears to have based its decision almost entirely on a report by a Shin Bet agent called "Max." Both Max and the committee wrote that Abu Ajawa "constitutes a danger to the peace and security of the public in Jaffa, especially given the sensitivity of the delicate fabric of relations between Jaffa's Jewish and Arab populations."

The suit charged that "Max" once interrogated Abu Ajawa about the content of his sermons, and then told him that the Shin Bet would determine who the mosque's next imam was.

However, it added, Abu Ajawa has never been suspected of any actual crime; his only "crime" is membership in the Islamic Movement's northern branch (which is considered more extreme than the southern branch).

Sfard, who termed the Shin Bet's involvement a form of McCarthyism, told Haaretz that officially, no security screening is required to become imam of a mosque.

Abu Ajawa, 36, has served as volunteer imam of the Jabalya Mosque since the last imam died three and a half years ago, and was seeking to be appointed officially. He has worked as an imam since age 19, making him Israel's youngest imam. The imam's job is to lead prayer services and issue rulings on Islamic law (sharia).

When the suit was first filed in late 2008, the Shin Bet told Haaretz that it was obligated by law to inform both the Interior Ministry and the Civil Service Commission that during his service as an imam, Abu Ajawa - who also serves as head of the Jaffa division of the Islamic Movement's northern branch - was repeatedly involved in hostile activity, namely incitement against the state and its Jewish citizens.

Asked if it would also advise against hiring extremist rabbis, the Shin Bet said it passes on relevant information "without regard to religion or nationality."