Last week, pressure from religious institutions led to new steps being taken towards the reopening of places of worship in Bahrain and Iraq. In Iraq and Yemen, changes made to state institutions that could significantly impact the religious landscape attracted the most attention. In Bahrain, a Shiite cleric survived a suspected murder attempt in prison. In Iran, although the number of events reported significantly dropped ahead of the Iranian New Year on 20 March, the repression of Baha’i citizens continues. In Egypt, a mass sentencing of alleged Hasm Movement and Liwa al Thawra members took place despite criticism of the legal proceedings by human rights organizations. In Israel, Haredi Jews held a number of demonstrations based on the perceived targeting of their community by Israeli authorities; while in Palestine, competition over Al Aqsa continues as the Jewish Passover holiday approaches.
In Bahrain, the parliament approved a proposal to gradually reopen hussainiyas and matams — congregation halls used by Shiite worshippers to perform religious ceremonies — across the country on 19 March (Manama Post, 19 March 2021). This decision came after the heads of various hussainiyas and matams called for their reopening, arguing that they were places of worship equal to mosques for Sunni worshippers, which had been reopened on 11 March. In Iraq, the Iraqi federal government lifted the ban on group prayers on 19 March and allowed mosques to reopen for the first time since 13 February. Places of worship were initially closed as the country was struggling with a second wave of the coronavirus (Arab News, 19 February 2019). This decision came after pressure from the Union of Imams in Baghdad, which had stated on 17 March that it would defy the government’s instructions and would open their mosques anyway.
In Iraq, the Parliament also approved new amendments to a Federal Supreme Court law that focused on the process of nominating and confirming the court’s members. The controversial provision sought to add four Muslim scholars from the Sunni and Shiite sects to the court as “Sharia law experts” (Iraq Security and Humanitarian Monitor, 18 March 2021). However, this provision failed to pass after minority MPs boycotted the session and prevented a quorum (Rudaw, 18 March 2021). Earlier in the week, protests had erupted in Basrah in response to the voting on the law. Demonstrators voiced their rejection of the inclusion of “sectarian” quotas that would further complicate an already fragmented political scene (Iraq Security and Humanitarian Monitor, 18 March 2021).
In Yemen, the pro-Houthi Supreme Political Council issued a presidential decree renaming the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Guidance the Ministry of Religious Guidance and Pilgrimage Affairs (Yemen News Agency, 17 March). Removing “religious endowments” from the ministry’s name could be a way of shifting those prerogatives to the General Authority for Religious Endowments and to empower this newly-created entity. The General Authority was created on 30 January 2021 and is headed by Houthi leader Abd al Majid al Houthi. This could also give credibility to earlier reports that the General Authority had been created to act as a rival to the ministry and to speed up processes of land acquisition by pro-Houthi forces under the “religious endowments” banner (Al Mashhad al Yemeni, 31 January 2021; Khabar News Agency, 1 February 2021).
In Bahrain, imprisoned Shiite cleric Sheikh Zuhair Ashour was reportedly targeted by an assassination attempt in Jaw Prison on 14 March. According to Bahraini human rights organizations, Ashour was imprisoned primarily for his political, rather than religious, activities (Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, 18 January 2021), but this incident reflects the systematic “sectarian discrimination” that Shiite prisoners experience in Bahrain (Amnesty International, 28 September 2018). Ashour’s citizenship was revoked and he was sentenced to a total of 75 years in prison (Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, 13 January 2021).
In Iran, the number of events captured decreased drastically last week as the Iranian New Year — Nowruz — approached on 20 March. It is likely that the number of events reported will remain low in the next two weeks, as the country focuses on celebrations. During Nowruz, the head of the judiciary issued a directive that allows prisoners with fewer than five years of conviction to go on prison leave for two weeks. However, the persecution of Baha’is continues, with the Ministry of Intelligence preventing six Baha’i prisoners from enjoying their prison leave in the city of Bandar Abbas.
In Egypt, 272 alleged members of the Hasm Movement and Liwa al Thawra were sentenced to anywhere between life and three years of imprisonment. The Egyptian judiciary has often used charges of affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood to quell opposition to the regime. Human rights organizations criticize the legal proceedings of this case on the basis that several of the accused were forcibly disappeared, subjected to torture, forced to confess crimes, and deprived of the possibility to consult a lawyer (Egyptian Front for Human Rights, 1 November 2020). This follows the recent elevation of the listing of the Hasm Movement from a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) to a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the US government last January (Middle East Eye, 15 January 2021). The FTO designation makes SDGT restrictions apply extraterritorially.
In Israel, demonstrations involving Haredi Jews made up the majority of activity last week. Two demonstration events were held in Jerusalem to denounce the construction of the light rail in the city. Since December 2020, this has been a recurrent motive for demonstrations, as the Haredim claim that this project will harm the religious character of their neighborhoods (Haaretz, 8 December 2020). In both events, violent behavior led to a number of arrests. Also in Jerusalem, residents of the Mea Shearim neighborhood clashed with police forces following the arrest of a Haredi woman for attempting to escape military service. The woman was released as the Israeli Security Service Law exempts women from military service obligations for religious reasons. The Israeli police apologized for the confusion.
In Palestine, tensions around religious claims to Al Aqsa Mosque continue amidst new Jewish religious celebrations. On the occasion of Rosh Chodesh of Nisan on 14 March — the first day of the first month of the Hebrew year — more than 200 settlers entered Al Aqsa to perform Talmudic rituals. This was accompanied by a call from Jewish Temple Mount groups for Jewish worshippers to slaughter offerings at the compound during Passover celebrations, which will take place from 27 March to 7 April. In reaction, Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and current Al Aqsa preacher, called on Muslim worshippers to intensify their access to Al Aqsa to prevent Jewish attempts at reclaiming the site during Passover. This could lead to renewed clashes next week similar to the Israeli police attacks on Muslim worshippers during celebrations of Isra and Miraj on 11 and 12 March.
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