CAIRO (AP) -- In his weekly sermon, Muslim cleric Ali Abdel-Moati preached to his congregation in a southern Egyptian city about the evils of making hasty judgments. That prompted a complaint to authorities from a judge, who accused him of criticizing a recent mass death sentence issued against supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
Days later, Abdel-Moati was suspended from the mosque in Assiut, replaced by a new preacher, and put under investigation by the Religious Endowments Ministry.
Egyptian authorities are tightening control on mosques around the country, purging preachers and seeking to control the message, as the military-backed government cracks down on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood following his ouster last summer.
Some 12,000 freelance preachers have been barred from delivering sermons. The Religious Endowments Ministry, or Awqaf in Arabic, now sets strict guidelines for sermons, and anyone who strays from them in Egypt's more than 100,000 mosques risks removal.
The aim, officials say, is to prevent mosques from spreading extremism and becoming a platform for political groups, after widespread criticism that the Brotherhood and its more ultraconservative allies used them to build support, recruit new followers and sway voters. During elections the past three years, Islamist clerics would often tout a vote in the Brotherhood's favor as a vote for Islam or supported by God.
But the result is silencing any sort of critical voice and making the minbar -- the name for the pulpit in a mosque -- apolitical, bringing no potential challenge to authorities and delivering a single shade of Islam to the public.
"The aim is to prevent mosques from serving agendas of political parties or being used as propaganda machine for any ideology either those with the government or not," Sheik Ahmed Turk, director of the Grand Mosques in Egypt, the Awqaf department that oversees the largest mosques, told The Associated Press. "Now we push our own preachers and clerics to give apolitical message to normal people."
The 37-year-old Abdel-Moati, in Assiut, says he is not a Morsi supporter. He said he criticized Morsi in his sermons, saying he was turning himself into a "pharaoh" through his decrees and that the Brotherhood was dividing Egyptians. When Morsi visited Assiut as president, Abdel-Moati said he was replaced by another cleric for the day because of his criticisms.
An Awqaf Ministry official said the judge complained that Abdel-Moati was "interfering in judicial affairs," claiming that in his sermon he directly criticized the court verdict in the city of Minya that sentenced hundreds of Morsi supporters to death for killing a police officer in a mob attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Abdel-Moati said he never mentioned the verdict or the courts at all and only warned against "making hasty judgments because it could lead to bloodshed." He said he believes the judge was not even present at the sermon and heard about it secondhand.
"Now because of the deep polarization, any word can be used against anyone because of the hypersensitivity between the rival sides," Abdel-Moati said.
The campaign is being led by the new Awqaf minister, Mohammed Mokhtar Gomaa, who took his post after Morsi's ouster. He vows to ensure mosques transmit only the message of Al-Azhar, Egypt's premier Islamic institution that touts itself as the voice of moderation.
The drive aims to go beyond any such attempts during the 29-year-rule rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. His government had loyalist clerics who stuck to a state line, but not all mosques came under state control. The government moved only sporadically to rein in mosques connected to jihadi extremists, but allowed Muslim Brotherhood-run mosques to expand their charity network, which built grassroots support for the group.
Ultraconservative Salafis -- who advocate a strict Saudi-style version of Islam and an unbending literal interpretation of the Quran -- enjoyed virtually free rein to expand since they were seen as apolitical and no threat to Mubarak's rule.
After Mubarak's fall in 2011 and Morsi's rise to the presidency, the Brotherhood was accused of pushing its loyalists to prominence in the Awqaf Ministry. But facing a backlash, it was unable to bring mosques under its control.
It is not clear if the government will have the ability to completely control the vast number of mosques, given the state's sometimes limited reach. Still, Gomaa's moves have been sweeping.
In his first decision, he revoked the licenses of all clerics and preachers and forced them to apply for new ones, giving the ministry the chance to vet them. Some 12,000 were barred. More than 80,000 have been licensed, including some 55,000 employed by the ministry. The rest are Al-Azhar-trained clerics.