Last week, the Egyptian and Iraqi governments issued new regulations on religious and non-religious practices prior to the holy month of Ramadan, starting this year around 13 April. In the two countries, new measures were also announced by both state and religious institutions to limit the spread of the coronavirus in places of worship. In Bahrain, Shiite places of worship called on the government to allow them to reopen while a coronavirus outbreak was reported in the country’s main prison. In Yemen, pro-Houthi authorities forced the country’s Jewish community into exile, while in Iraq, a recent initiative to retrieve Christian properties illegally acquired in recent years seem to be bearing fruit. In both Israel and Palestine, the week was marked by Passover celebrations, with tensions notably resuming around Al Aqsa.
In Egypt, the Higher Committee for the Management of the Coronavirus Crisis announced a series of measures to limit the spread of the pandemic during the celebrations of Ramadan. These include implementing restrictions around the tarawih Ramadan prayer, prohibiting tahajjud prayers altogether, and forbidding any other large gatherings inside mosques. At the same time, the Coptic Orthodox Church decentralized the management of the pandemic in its religious institutions. As a result, Archbishops in the dioceses of Abu Qurqas, Esna, Armant, Al Balyana, Dir Mawas, and Mallawi all announced different measures to be implemented in their churches. These range from limiting church attendance to 25% of their full capacity to cancelling all services, educational activities, and social gatherings (Al Masry Al Youm, 1 April 2021).
In Iraq, restrictions around Ramadan were imposed by the Ministry of Culture on non-religious practices that do not “fit the holiness of the month” (Al Mawqif, 1 April 2021). These include prohibiting eating or drinking in public during the day, closing all liquor stores, prohibiting concerts and artistic events, and closing restaurants (Al Mawqif, 1 April 2021). Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Regional Government ordered the closure of mosques, churches, and all religious facilities in the Kurdistan region for 10 days to curb the spread of the coronavirus (Basnews, 31 March 2021).
In Bahrain, more than a hundred hussainiyas and matams — congregation halls used by Shiite worshippers to perform religious ceremonies — called on the government to allow them to reopen. Authorities say they should remain closed to limit the spread of the coronavirus in the country. In their statement, religious leaders claimed that hussainiyas and matams were not treated equally to other places of worship that were allowed to reopen on 11 March as coronavirus restrictions were eased (Manama Post, 28 March 2021). Their calls come amid a coronavirus outbreak in Jaw Prison, which has sparked a wave of protests throughout the country (Al Wafa, 1 April 2021). The outbreak prompted prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim to demand the immediate release of political prisoners, arguing that they were facing death in Bahraini prisons (Shiite News, 2 April 2021).
In Yemen, pro-Houthi authorities blackmailed 13 Yemeni Jews into exile. According to several reports, they represented the last three remaining Jewish families in Yemen. There are now allegedly only four Jews left in the country (Al Monitor, 29 March 2021). In the words of one of those exiled, they were given a choice between “staying in the midst of harassment and keeping [Libby Salem Musa Marhabi] a prisoner or leaving and having him released” (Al Monitor, 29 March 2021). Marhabi is a Yemeni Jew who was arrested in 2016 for his alleged involvement in an operation by the Jewish Agency for Israel. The operation had enabled the emigration of 17 Yemeni Jews to Israel. Only a week before this forced exile, the Yemeni INSAF Center for Defending Freedoms & Minorities had published a thorough report exploring the case of Marhabi (INSAF, 21 March 2021).
In contrast, in Iraq, more than 50 illegally-seized properties have been returned to Christian citizens since the creation of a parliament committee dedicated to this issue last January (International Christian Concern, 28 March 2021). The committee was formed by Shiite leader Muqtada al Sadr with the purpose of exploring illegal expropriations of minority-owned properties. Initial scepticism was voiced at the creation of the committee because of Al Sadr’s connection with the groups reportedly responsible for these expropriations (International Christian Concern, 6 January 2021). The progress of the committee may be linked to the Pope’s historic visit to Iraq in early March (International Christian Concern, 28 March 2021).
In Iran, very few events were reported for the third consecutive week, as the country celebrated the Iranian New Year — Nowruz — on 20 March and the subsequent holiday period. Although the New Year holiday ended on 3 April, the number of events are likely to remain low in the coming weeks. The country is facing what appears to be a severe fourth wave of the coronavirus, resulting from population movements within the country during the New Year holiday (Associated Press, 8 April 2021). Authorities and security forces may thus need to focus on enforcing new coronavirus restrictions (The National, 5 April 2021), especially as Ramadan approaches.
In Palestine, tensions resumed around Al Aqsa last week as the number of Jewish settlers accessing the site increased significantly during the Passover Jewish holiday — taking place from 27 March to 4 April. At its peak, more than 900 settlers accessed Al Aqsa on 1 April and performed Jewish prayers, which are forbidden according to the status quo affirmed in 1967 (Al Jazeera, 14 September 2020). This is the largest number of settlers reported in Al Aqsa in a single day since January 2021. It has prompted the Jordanian Minister of Religious Endowments, Islamic Affairs and Holy Places to issue a statement condemning this increased activity, which it calls “provocations to the feelings of millions of Muslims” (Al Quds City, 2 April 2021). Israeli settlers also broke into a number of Palestinian archeological sites in Hebron, Ramallah, and Nablus governorates to perfom Talmudic rituals.
In Israel, unknown individuals reacted to Passover celebrations with other provocations targeting Jewish worshippers. In the Haredi city of Bnei Brak and the neighboring city of Ramat Gan, chametz — foods with leavening agents that are forbidden during Passover — were scattered in several Haredi and Hasidic synagogues.
© 2021 Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). All rights reserved.