Imams not sent to NZ to 'take control'

6:13 pm on 6 April 2016

New Zealand Muslim leaders are rejecting suggestions imams are being sent from Egypt to 'take control' of local mosques and stem radicalisation.

Men praying at Hamilton's Mosque during Friday prayers.

A file photo shows men praying at Hamilton's Mosque during Friday prayers. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

The Egyptian ambassador to New Zealand, Tarek al-Wasimy, has been quoted in international media saying Islamic scholars from Cairo's Al Azhar University are coming to New Zealand to stem radicalisation at Islamic centres.

But Federation of Islamic Associations in New Zealand president Hazem al-Arafeh said that was not true.

He said imams who study in Egypt have been invited to work in Muslim communities for more than 10 years, and have to follow the policies set out by the communities, not take control of them.

"The offer has always been there to assist mosques in New Zealand in providing the services of the imams, particularly during the month of Ramadan.

"It is up to the individual mosques and Islamic centres whether to take up the offer or not."

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFAT) spokesperson said the government was not involved in any such initiative with Egypt.

"The Egyptian ambassador to New Zealand briefed MFAT on an Al Azhar University programme following its launch in 2015.

"Apart from that, the New Zealand government has no involvement."

He said Al Azhar University regularly sent imams to local mosques around the world, not just in New Zealand.

Al Azhar is one of the world's oldest universities, and is the most renowned religious institution in the Muslim world.

In Arabic, an "imam" is a reference to a community leader, and is often the term used to refer to a qualified Muslim scholar who runs services in local mosques.

The AUT muslim chaplain, Sheikh Rafat Najm, is a graduate from Al Azhar, and said scholars have been coming regularly to work with communities for years, usually to help with religious services and to lead prayers.

He said there was not any problems of radicalisation in the community.

"I am not aware of any extremism or radicalisation threatening New Zealand, and if I am, as an imam I would report it to the authorities straight away."

The North Shore Islamic Centre in Auckland has hosted imams from Al Azhar for the last six years, and were expecting a new one to arrive in time for the fasting month of Ramadan in early June.

Ahmed Moharam, a member of the North Shore Islamic Trust, said the Muslim community had a good relationship with the police, and were in regular contact.

"In New Zealand we have a very good system of putting checks and balances in place to combat to radicalisation.

"We're quite happy to work with security agencies in New Zealand to protect it from terrorism."

He said the imams from Egypt contributed to that, but they were not coming to take control of mosques.

"Our mosques have their own governance structures, and the general community has a lot of say."

Mr Moharam said New Zealand Muslims were really well integrated within the wider community, and any fears of radicalisation were being greatly exaggerated.

"I don't think there is a radicalisation problem or a terrorism issue here. It's just a storm in a teacup."

The office of the Egyptian Embassy said Mr al-Wasimy was no longer making comments.