Israel president decries bill to quieten mosques

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israeli President Reuven Rivlin spoke out Tuesday against a controversial bill that would prohibit mosques from using loudspeakers to summon believers to prayers early in the morning.

The draft law, which sparked outrage around the Arab and wider Muslim world, is set to be submitted to its first reading in parliament on Wednesday.

Its original form was amended last week to not affect the sirens that announce the start of the Jewish day of rest at sundown each Friday.

Rivlin on Tuesday hosted in his Jerusalem residence a meeting of religious leaders "seeking to bridge gaps over the issue of the muezzins," the Muslim lay officials charged with calling the faithful to prayer across the country, a statement from his office read.

"I thought that perhaps such a meeting could have an impact on the whole public, and that it would be a shame that a law should be born which touches on the issue of freedom of faith of a specific group among us," the president was quoted as telling participants.

Rivlin, whose post is mainly ceremonial, considers the new legislation -- supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- unnecessary.

"The president believes that the existing legislation on noise levels is able to answer problems arising from this issue, along side dialogue between the different faith communities in Israel," Rivlin's spokesperson Naomi Toledano Kandel said.

Israeli government watchdogs have baulked at the proposed legislation, describing it as a threat to religious freedom and an unnecessary provocation.

Arab Israeli lawmaker Ahmed Tibi has vowed to appeal to the High Court of Justice if the Shabbat siren is excluded from the scope of the bill on the grounds that it discriminates between Jewish and Muslim citizens.

The law would apply to mosques in annexed Arab east Jerusalem as well as Israel, although the highly sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound -- Islam's third holiest site -- will be exempted, according to an Israeli official.

The bill's sponsor, Motti Yogev, of the far-right Jewish Home party, says the legislation is necessary to avoid daily disturbance to the lives of hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim Israelis.

He also charges that some muezzins abuse their function to incite hatred of Israel.

On Sunday, Rivlin had told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Israeli legislative initiatives pertaining to prayers would be "considered with sensitivity, as any matter of freedom of speech and religion should be."