By Mirwais Harooni and Sharafuddin Sharafyar
KABUL/HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghanistan has stepped up efforts to stop clerics from inciting violence or preaching anti-government slogans in mosques, giving unruly mullahs three chances to change their ways or face dismissal and possibly jail.
In Afghanistan, where most men go to Friday prayers, sermons are a critical influence on both sides of the conflict with insurgents looking to gain support and recruits, and NATO and Afghan forces aiming to counter militant messages as Western combat troops look to pull out by the end of 2014.
A recent decree by the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs aims to dampen anti-Western and pro-insurgent messages from religious leaders at mosques whose opinions are often more trusted and valued than those of the government, which in many rural and regional areas is seen as a remote presence.
"If we encourage our people to be at peace, they accept it, and if we encourage them to do anything, they accept, because they know that whatever we tell them is according to the holy Koran and Islam," said Mawlavi Mohammad Asghar, an imam in Kabul.
Of around 126,000 mosques in Afghanistan, only about 6,000 are registered and funded by the government. The others are built by the people and their imams are supported by that neighborhood. In rural areas where the Taliban are most active, Friday sermons are often in favor of the insurgency.
"When a mullah, who is hired by us, is in violation (of the decree), we discharge him from his job. And if he is not hired officially by us, we report to security and judicial departments to act against him," Abdul Malik Zeyaee, head of the Mosques and Religious Sites department at the ministry, told Reuters.
Afghanistan now has a three-strike approach for clerics who preach against the constitution or incite violence - first a delegation will be sent to talk to the offending imam, then a strong warning and finally the leader may face dismissal if at a registered mosque, or possibly jail if not.
But with so few officially sanctioned mosques and little government leverage over those which are not, there are strong doubts that Kabul will be able to stop anti-government messages, especially in far-flung areas where government reach is weak.
Afghans in provinces outside Kabul said they had not seen much change in the mullahs' speeches since the decree was issued a few months ago.
"They speak against foreign forces in the country, they speak about violations by the government and the Taliban and they speak about anything. People are listening to them carefully," said Hajji Khoshdil, a 45-year-old resident of Herat city near the border with Iran.
"THE CRUSADER COLONIALISTS"
The decree has taken on renewed importance after a series of missteps by the West that have inflamed security tensions, including the inadvertent burning of Korans by U.S. soldiers in February, triggering riots stirred in part by mosque sermons.
The massacre of 17 Afghan villagers in Kandahar, for which a U.S. soldier was charged, and photographs of U.S. troops posing with dead suicide bombers have only added fuel to the fire.
"The crusader colonialists through their agent rulers are trying to uproot Islam from the Afghan society," Hizb ut Tahrir Afghanistan, a radical Islamic group, said in a statement on the new directives this week.
"All this is happening in the so called 'Islamic Democratic Afghanistan' where you are free to preach anything but not Islam. After killing hundreds and thousands of Muslims in Afghanistan, the colonialists, in collaboration with the traitor rulers, are trying to control Islam inside mosques."
Anti-Western sentiment is growing in Afghanistan, which is traditionally conservative, deeply religious and suspicious of outsiders in areas outside the capital. The welcome foreign troops got in 2001 has slowly soured as the war drags into its 11th year and civilian casualties, caused mainly by insurgents, continue to mount.
Many government imams in volatile southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces would not talk to Reuters reporters about the resolution for fear of retribution by the government. The mosques' department also declined to provide Reuters with a copy of the decree.
But in other provinces, outside the Pashtun-dominated south from which the Taliban draws most support, clerics said the decree would not influence their Friday sermons.
"Our holy Koran is more important than the resolution of the Hajj ministry. I'll never avoid telling the truth," said Ghulam Faroq, a member of the Ulema council in western Herat province.
"I'm not a politician who would encourage people to stand against the government or support a political party, but if something happens which is against Islam, I'll raise my voice."
(Additional reporting by Miriam Arghandiwal in Kabul and Abdul Malik in Helmand; Writing by Jack Kimball; Editing by Rob Taylor and Nick Macfie)