Last week, authorities in Bahrain and Gaza issued new regulations prior to the holy month of Ramadan, starting around 13 April, due to its occurrence for the second consecutive year in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. In Egypt, Christian denominations also announced precautionary measures to be implemented around Easter celebrations in May. Meanwhile, the former acting leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was sentenced to life imprisonment. In Iran, the number of events targeting religious minorities increased significantly after three consecutive weeks with little activity during the national Iranian New Year holiday period. In Iraq, morality-based repression was reported in both Baghdad and the Kurdistan region. In Israel, attacks targeting Haredi Jews saw an uptick, while in Palestine, religious settlers assaulted a rabbi. In Yemen, Islamist militant activity seems to be resurging in the southern governorates of the country.
In Bahrain, the government decided to open all mosques and other Shiite religious facilities for Ramadan to worshippers who have received the two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as to those who have recovered from the virus. This comes as a COVID-19 outbreak in Jaw Central Prison sparked a wave of protests not seen in the country in the past three years (see ACLED’s Middle East Regional Overview for more). In Palestine, the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Religious Affairs of the Hamas government prohibited access to mosques to women and senior citizens during Ramadan as a coronavirus-related restriction. Similarly, in Egypt, precautionary measures were announced by the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Coptic Catholic Church, and the Church of the Anglican Province of Alexandria ahead of Easter celebrations that will take place next month.
In Egypt as well, a court sentenced Mahmoud Ezzat, the former acting leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, to life imprisonment. He was charged with “inciting to murder, planning terrorist activities, possessing unlicensed weapons, being a member of terrorist armed group, and inciting to violence” for events tracing back to 2013 (Al Dostor, 8 April 2021). Until his arrest in August 2020, Izzat had been living clandestinely in Egypt since the military coup of 2013. In July 2013, military forces led by then-General Al Sisi, current president of Egypt, overthrew the government of Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi. The latter was Egypt’s first democratically elected president (Reuters, 17 June 2019).
In Iran, repression of religious minorities resumed last week, after three weeks of very few reported events during the Nowruz holiday. Baha’i citizens, in particular, were targeted by state authorities. Despite the country’s struggle with coronavirus in overcrowded prisons (Center for Human Rights in Iran, 14 April 2021), dozens were arrested or summoned to serve their prison sentences. Others have also been harassed by security forces who raided and searched their homes in Shiraz.
In Iraq, suspected militants from the Shiite Sayyid al Shuhada Brigade attacked a massage center in Karadah area of Baghdad, damaging its facade and assaulting the workers there. While more than ten attacks targeting liquor stores or massage centers were reported in the month of February alone, this represents the first attack since 24 February. The reason behind the sudden drop in these attacks is unclear. However, some sources argue that these attacks are part of a territorial conflict in Baghdad since Muslim citizens are allowed to own such stores, which compete with the traditional Christian and Yazidi owners (France 24, 16 December 2020). It could thus be that a compromise had been found between the conflicting parties over the past month, but that competition is starting anew.
In the Kurdistan Region, the Ministry of Culture and Youth banned several TV channels for a week — Net TV, Kurdmax TV, and Korek TV — for broadcasting shows that “violate the society’s standards and damage morals” (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, 7 April 2021). This took place only a few days after the majority of the Sulaymaniyah Provincial Council condoned a wave of arrests targeting members of the LGBT community, on the basis that they represent “the protection of values, family security, and social norms” (Shafaq News, 4 April 2021). The US Consulate in Erbil officially voiced its concerns over these arrests (US Consulate General Erbil, 3 April, 2021).
In Israel, unknown perpetrators targeted Haredi Jews in several cities, seemingly confirming a trend that began to emerge in late March. This led to the injury of a rabbi in Jerusalem after toxic material was sprayed on a religious building. In Ramat Gan, swastikas were painted on a store owned by a Haredi man. In the neighboring city of Bnei Brak, a synagogue was set on fire on 5 April, leading to the burning of its Torah ark, while chametz — foods with leavening agents that are forbidden during Passover — were placed at the entrance of another synagogue two days prior. This spike in incidents targeting the Haredi community seems to have started during the Passover celebrations, when in the same cities of Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan, chametz were scattered in several synagogues as acts of provocation.
In Palestine, Hilltop Youth Israeli settlers from Bayt El assaulted Rabbi Arik Ascherman, former president of Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli left-wing human rights movement. Ascherman, alongside other members of the movement, had gathered to the area in an attempt to prevent Jewish shepherds from grazing their herds on Palestinian fields nearby. He had already been targeted earlier this year for his activism, presumably by “settlers and/or Jewish extremists” (The Jerusalem Post, 8 April 2021). Last week, religious settlers also beat up Palestinians on two separate occasions in the city of Hebron.
In Yemen, events attributed by some sources to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) were reported in Abyan, Hadramawt, and Shabwah governorates (Yemen Press Agency, 7 April 2021; Twitter, 10 April 2021; Twitter, 6 April 2021). In Shabwah, AQAP forces claimed mortar strikes that targeted the UAE military base in the Balhaf facility, representing the first official claim of the organization in the governorate since September 2018 (Twitter, 6 April 2021). In Hadramawt, an “extremist group” destroyed graves in the coastal Shihr district in an unusual incident (Aden al Ghad, 10 April 2021). Although the perpetrators remain unknown, some sources speculate that this could be attributed to AQAP, given the organization’s previous history of destroying grave sites (Twitter, 10 April 2021; Long War Journal, 15 June 2012).This recent increase of AQAP activity has led some experts to argue that the group could be regrouping in its former strongholds in Southern Yemen (The National, 9 April 2021).
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