Last week was marked by the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan in the Muslim world, which takes place during the coronavirus pandemic for the second consecutive year. While some countries allowed for mosques to reopen despite the pandemic, although only to men in some instances, others imposed restrictions on religious practices and closed places of worship that did not abide by the restrictions. In Palestine, this resulted in clashes between worshippers and Israeli police forces at Al Aqsa mosque that lasted for several days. In Yemen, pro-Houthi authorities took advantage of Ramadan to collect additional taxes and allegedly spread Houthi ideology in the country’s mosques. In Iran, although the news cycle was focused on the attack on the Natanz nuclear site, the persecution of the country’s Baha’i citizens continued. In Israel, as the country celebrated both its Remembrance Day and its Independence Day, anti-Zionist Haredi Jews burned Israeli flags on both occasions.
As Ramadan was announced for most countries on 13 April, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq announced that it would reopen its mosques. This decision, however, only allowed the reopening of men’s prayer halls, thus discriminating against women. A similar decision was made by the Hamas government in Gaza the week before. In Palestine, authorities in the West Bank announced that the Tarawih prayer — a prayer held specifically during Ramadan — would be allowed to take place inside the country’s mosques instead of open spaces. Meanwhile, in both Egypt and Bahrain, mosques that did not comply with the government’s precautionary measures were closed down. Additionally, in Egypt, the Supreme Council of Sufi Orders cancelled the traditional Ramadan Sufi procession that starts at the Salih Al Jaafari mosque and ends in front of the Husayn mosque in Cairo.
In Palestine, restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities around access to Al Aqsa Mosque led to repeated clashes throughout the week. On 13 April, the authorities announced that the entry to Al Aqsa would be restricted to 10,000 vaccinated worshippers from the West Bank on the first Friday of Ramadan. On the same day, Israeli police forces also destroyed the doors of two minarets and cut their loudspeakers to prevent the Islamic call to prayer from being performed because of nearby celebrations of Israel’s Independence Day. They also prevented Palestinians from introducing Iftar — the meal with which Muslim worshippers end their daily fast during Ramadan — into the compound.
The tense situation developed into clashes between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police forces on the evening of the first day of Ramadan. These then occurred on a daily basis, as police forces prevented worshippers from remaining in the area after the Tawarih prayer (Al Quds City, 17 April 2021). These confrontations are likely to continue during Ramadan, as a number of Palestinian actors, including the Hamas Movement, are calling for worshippers to increase their access to Al Aqsa during the month (Dunia Al Watan, 14 April 2021). Moreover, Muslim worshippers are enjoying renewed access to Al Aqsa after it was completely shut down during the holy month last year. Despite the Israeli restrictions and increased security in the Old City area, around 70,000 worshippers managed to gather on Friday (Middle East Eye, 16 April 2021).
In Yemen, the new General Authority for Religious Endowments, created by pro-Houthi authorities in January 2021, announced that mosques would be allowed to host the Tarawih prayer only if they paid 5,000 Saudi riyals. A few days after the start of Ramdan, however, some sources claimed that the General Authority issued a circular cancelling the Tarawih prayers in all mosques of the Yemeni capital and replaced it with two-hour “sectarian lessons” (Al Asimah Online, 16 April 2021). In Raymah governorate, a Houthi cultural supervisor issued a directive forcing the mosques to broadcast speeches of Houthi leader Abdulmalik Al Houthi at the same time as the Tarawih prayer.
In addition, the Houthi-appointed mufti, Shams Al Din bin Sharaf Al Din, issued a fatwa to increase Zakat Al Fitr by 120% (Al Mashhad Al Yemeni, 15 April 2021). Zakat Al Fitr is a charity paid by Muslims during Ramadan to allow the poor to celebrate the end of the holy month during Eid Al Fitr. The source claims that since pro-Houthi forces overtook the capital in 2014, Zakat Al Fitr was gradually raised from 100 riyals to 550 riyals this Ramadan (Al Mashhad Al Yemeni, 15 April 2021). Whether that money indeed goes to the poor, however, is uncertain.
In Iran, most of the news last week was focused on the attack on the Natanz nuclear site (ACLED, 21 April 2021). Few events were reported, although a new Baha’i citizen was sentenced to three years of imprisonment on charges of “propaganda against the state” (Human Rights Activists News Agency, 14 April 2021). In the last couple of weeks, more than 25 Baha’is have been summoned and arrested in the cities of Shiraz, Mashhad, Bandar Abbas, and Karaj. This led some activists to argue that Iranian authorities have been taking advantage of the country’s focus on the fourth coronavirus wave to “intensify its persecution campaign against Baha’is” (Iran Press Watch, 16 April 2021).
In Israel, on the country’s Remembrance Day — Yom HaZikaron — anti-Zionist Haredi Jews burned flowers and Israeli flags that were laid on the graves of Israeli Defence Forces on the Mount of Beatitudes. The Haredim reportedly took the flowers and flags from the Mount and brought them to Jerusalem’s Haredi Mea Shearim neighborhood, where they set them on fire. According to sources, the Haredim acted in protest against the participation of Haredi politicians in the annual Yom HaZikaron ceremony that takes place on Mount Herzl (Kikar HaShabbat, 15 April 2021).
Although the perpetrators are unknown, they are likely to be part of the Neturei Karta group, whose members set fire to Israeli flags during a protest the next day, on the country’s Independence Day. Neturei Karta represents a small population of Haredi Judaism, and is known for its strong anti-Zionist stance. It is based on the belief that establishing a Jewish state until the coming of the Messiah is illegitimate and a religious offense (Al Monitor, 2 November 2015). Its members thus often protest with the Palestinian flag, and sometimes along with Palestinians themselves (Maan News Agency, 21 October 2020). On some occasions, Neturei Karta members have also been targeted by other Jews for their beliefs (Kikar HaShabbat, 17 November 2020).
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