Last week, new information about the government’s abusive treatment of prisoners in Jaw Prison was revealed in Bahrain. In Iran, the repression of minorities continued, although a significant drop in events was recorded for the second consecutive week amid national holidays for the Iranian New Year. In Egypt, an increase in coronavirus cases led to new restrictions being imposed on places of worship for both Christians and Muslims. In Iraq, increased tensions in the Sinjar district led the local Yazidi religious authority to call on the Yazidi community to take up arms. In Israel, a new trend of assaults targeting Haredi Jews seems to be emerging, while in Palestine, tensions around Al Aqsa have subsided after two weeks of increased activity. In Yemen, Houthi authorities continue to use state institutions to strengthen their control over the religious landscape.
In Bahrain, it was revealed on 22 March that a number of prisoners who organized a sit-in in solidarity with Shiite cleric Sheikh Zuhair Ashour were beaten by prison guards on 17 March. This coincided with a reported rise of coronavirus cases in Jaw Prison, which led the 14 February Youth Coalition to call for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience in Bahrain (Manama Post, 26 March 2021). The beatings and the alleged assassination attempt targeting Sheikh Zuhair Ashour on 14 March — by another prisoner who is reportedly a former member of Bahrain’s security forces — reflect the systematic “sectarian discrimination” experienced by Shiite inmates in Bahraini prisons (Amnesty International, 28 September 2018).
In Iran, a significant drop in the number of events was recorded for the second consecutive week, as the country celebrates the Iranian New Year — Nowruz — on 20 March and the subsequent holiday period. Last week was the first week in two months in which no events targeting the Baha’i community were reported. In two instances though, Kurdish political activists were prevented from attending and conducting funeral ceremonies by state authorities. This coincides with a wider campaign targeting Kurdish citizens for their participation in traditional Kurdish Nowruz ceremonies. In total, around 20 Kurds were arrested in different cities (Hengaw, 23 March 2021; Hengaw, 24 March 2021; Hengaw, 24 March 2021). Although Nowruz is rooted in the Zoroastrian religion, it is currently practiced by almost all of the Iranian population, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
In Egypt, an increase in the number of coronavirus cases has added pressure on different religious institutions to restrict gatherings in places of worship across the country. The Ministry of Religious Endowments closed three mosques in Kafr El-Shikh, Menoufia, and Qina governorates, alleging that they had not complied with the required measures during prayers, including wearing masks and social distancing. The Archbishop of Mallawi Coptic Orthodox Diocese also announced that all church activities would be suspended and that churches would open only for religious holidays at a maximum of 25% of their full capacities (Al Masry al Youm, 26 March 2021).
In Iraq, the Yazidi religious authority in Sinjar issued a statement on 24 March calling on Yazidi youth, men, and women to carry arms to defend Mount Sinjar against the entry of the Iraqi army in the area. They accuse the Iraqi government of using the Sinjar Agreement to “control Sinjar and kill and exterminate Yazidis” (ROJ News, 24 March 2021). In 2014, the Islamic State (IS) took control of the district and committed genocide against its Yazidi population. After IS was defeated, an array of armed groups exploited the subsequent security vacuum and established themselves throughout the district (International Crisis Group, 20 February 2018). Signed by Baghdad and Erbil in October 2020, the Sinjar Agreement was supposed to put an end to this situation by letting the Iraqi army into the district. However, tensions are escalating as advocates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the area refuse to let the army into the district (Al Monitor, 18 March 2021). Some Yazidi military leaders have expressed concern about the prospect of a new war in Sinjar (Rudaw, 26 March 2021).
In Israel, a number of assaults targeting Haredi Jews were reported in different cities. In one attack, a Haredi was hospitalized after he was assaulted and accused of being responsible for the spread of the coronavirus. Over the past months, Haredi Jews have held a number of demonstrations — some of which have turned violent — to denounce coronavirus restrictions. A number of Haredim indeed refused to adhere to the restrictions, claiming they prevent them from practicing core elements of their religious identity (Israel Democracy Institute, 13 April 2020).
As these attacks took place in the context of parliamentary elections — the fourth in two years — they were used by Haredi political parties to rally their electorate, advancing the need to defeat politicians inciting violence against the Haredi community (Kikar HaShabbat, 21 March 2021). They specifically targeted Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, in light of recent comments they have each made. The former said that he will send Haredim “to a landfill” (Times of Israel, 14 March 2021), while the latter called for the use of water cannons to disperse Haredi gatherings held in violation of coronavirus restrictions (Times of Israel, 6 February 2021). The number of seats held by the two Haredi parties — Shas and United Torah Judaism — however, did not change in the elections.
In Palestine, after two weeks of increased tensions around Al Aqsa Mosque during both Muslim and Jewish religious celebrations, tensions seem to have subsided. Notably, the call made by Temple Mount groups on 14 March to slaughter offerings at the compound during Jewish Passover celebrations has not been answered for now. On 26 March, however, the Israeli government imposed the closure of the West Bank and Gaza border crossing points for nine consecutive days, as it routinely does during Jewish holidays and Israeli national celebrations (Times of Israel, 18 April 2019).
In Yemen, pro-Houthi authorities in Sanaa continue to strengthen their control over the religious landscape through state institutions. On 24 March, Houthi leaders Muhammad Ali al Houthi and Abd al Majid al Houthi announced that the construction of mosques across Houthi-controlled territory would not be allowed without the approval of the General Authority for Religious Endowments. The General Authority is a new state entity that was created on 30 January 2021. It has seemingly replaced the former ministry, which was renamed by pro-Houthi authorities as the Ministry of Religious Guidance and Pilgrimage Affairs on 17 March (Yemen News Agency, 17 March). Minister Najib Nasir al Aji, who remains in his position despite the change in the ministry’s name, was officially sworn in to the renamed ministry on 22 March. A number of reports argue that the General Authority has been created 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).
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