President Reuven Rivlin spoke out Tuesday against a controversial bill that would prohibit mosques in Israel from using loudspeakers to summon believers to prayers early in the morning.
The draft of the so-called muezzin bill, which sparked outrage around the Arab and wider Muslim world, is set to be submitted for its first reading in the Knesset on Wednesday.
Its original form was amended last week to not affect the sirens that announce the start of Shabbat, 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 told participants. “Perhaps the voices heard today can be used to pave the way.”
“I am the son of someone who translated the Quran and observed the Jewish commandments, and I recognize the need to tread a fine line,” he added.
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.
At the meeting, Jerusalem’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Aryeh Stern urged an interfaith effort in thwarting the legislation.
“I see the need for a joint call for dialogue, which should be issued by the highest Jewish and Muslim religious leadership in the country — which in turn will possibly pull the rug from under the need for such a bill to be passed,” he told the meeting. “I think it should be a joint call, which on the one hand will stop the legislation itself and on the hand will deal with the places where the volume of the muezzin is an issue.”
President of the Islamic Sharia Court, Sheikh Abdel al-Hakim Samara, conceded there was a need to lower the volume of the call to prayer in “problematic areas,” and echoed Stern’s call for an interfaith approach in reaching a compromise.
“Once the law goes through without us attempting to resolve the issue through dialogue, it causes us to feel that our freedoms are vulnerable,” he said. “We all agree there is a need to lower the volume in problematic areas and we will act to ensure this, regardless of the law.”
Opposition lawmakers and government watchdogs have balked at the proposed legislation, describing it as a threat to religious freedom and an unnecessary provocation.
Joint (Arab) List MK Ahmad Tibi vowed to appeal to the High Court of Justice if the Shabbat siren was 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 East Jerusalem as well as Israel, although the highly sensitive Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem will be exempted, according to an Israeli official.
The bill’s sponsor, Moti Yogev of the Jewish Home party, said the legislation is necessary to avoid daily disturbance to the lives of non-Muslim Israelis.
He also claims that some muezzins abuse their function to incite hatred of Israel.
After the Tuesday meeting, Rivlin asked Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to help foil the passing of the bill when it came up for a vote in the Knesset on Wednesday.
According to Channel 2, Rivlin called Khalon and urged him to allow members of his 10-seat Kulanu party to vote freely, and against the coalition if they wished.
Kahlon reportedly did not indicate whether he would impose coalition discipline on the contentious vote.