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Egypt prepares to standardize Cairo's calls to prayer

One voice to be sent over radio

CAIRO -- Sitting on the bluff at the Giza pyramids in late afternoon, as the sky turns pink, you can hear the 5 o'clock call to prayer rise from mosques in the Nile River valley below until the air becomes filled with a drone of proclaimed faith.

Some of the calls begin early, some a few minutes late. Some last a rather long time, some peter out in a matter of seconds. Hundreds of muezzins, who appeal for the faithful to pray, issue the call from an estimated 4,000 Cairo mosques.

The cacophony of the call to prayer, one of the five required daily of orthodox Sunni Muslims, is about to end, if the government of President Hosni Mubarak succeeds in an ambitious electronic project unveiled Sunday. Declaring the different voices, starting times, and volumes an unattractive ''randomness," the Ministry of Religious Endowments signed a contract with a state firm to centralize the call to prayer by transmitting the voice of a single muezzin simultaneously to all the city's mosques.

Under the scheme, the voice heard at the tiny mosques in Giza will be the same one issuing from the giant mosque at the Citadel across the valley, and the two calls will begin and end together. ''This is an important civilizing step," Religious Endowments Minister Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq said.

The call to prayer is a revered ritual in Islam and congregants as well as imams compete to be allowed to give it. By whittling down the number of muezzins employed to chant at prayer time, the government is robbing hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people of the opportunity to perform the ritual.

Ragab Zaqi, a blind imam at a mosque on the east bank of the Nile, is having none of it. ''Islam urges people to compete to give the call to prayer. This seals the door for many," he said. Zaqi acknowledged that some Egyptians find the loud calls irritating, especially those that occur in the early morning, but said it is a small price to pay. The government plans to install receivers in mosques that would be tuned to a single radio station that beams the call to prayer from al-Azhar mosque, one of the city's main Muslim houses of worship.

Zaqzouq, the religious endowments minister, said the project will cost about $100,000.

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