Religious officials in Tunisia are divided over the recent arrest of a Salafi imam, who was detained earlier this week amidst what critics say is a government effort to control local mosques.
Khamis El Mejri was arrested on Monday in a city north of the capital Tunis for "preaching without a permit," according to Mongi Belaress, spokesperson for the first court of Bizerte.
El Mejri’s arrest is the latest in a series of moves taken by the government to exert control on mosques and imams that the government deems "extremist".
"El Mejri’s arrest is against the essence [of] democracy and against freedom of speech," said Tayyib Ghozi, an imam at the influential Al Uqba mosque in Kairouan, the oldest in North Africa. "He’s just an imam who loves his religion and wants the best interests of Muslims."
Abdessalem El Atoui, the secretary-general of the union for religious officials, which includes all government-sanctioned preachers, said El Mejri was not part of the union.
El Atoui approved of the government efforts to exert control, saying preachers are still able to say whatever they want and can even criticise the government.
Tunisian law allows for only government-sanctioned imams to preach in mosques.
According to the Assabah newspaper, last week the Religious Affairs Minister Mounir Klibi estimated that 149 mosques nationwide were operating without government control. This is a major increase from the 76 estimated by the previous Islamist-led government in June.
Officials have not explained the different estimates.
El Mejri’s arrest follows a string of controversial comments from the imam, including one where he referred to a suspect in the murder of leftist politician Chokri Belaid as a "martyr".
In his last address in Al-Mokhtar mosque north of Tunis on February 28, El Mejri denied that "Salafist" youths were responsible for acts of violence, implying instead that police were responsible.