Religious celebrations and events of important religious significance last week were met with repression, leading to violence across the Middle East and North Africa. In Egypt and Palestine, celebrations of Christian Orthodox Easter were limited, and at times suppressed due to coronavirus restrictions. In East Jerusalem, Palestinian Muslim worshippers were denied access to Al Aqsa during the last 10 days of Ramadan — considered to be the most holy days of the entire month. This led to intensified clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians in the days leading up to Jerusalem Day. In Yemen, Muslim worshippers were restricted in their access to mosques for tarawih and tahajud prayers — prayers conducted specifically during Ramadan. In Iran, the persecution of religious minorities, including Baha’is and Zoroastrians, continued. In Bahrain, Shiite worshippers were finally allowed back into matams — a congregation hall used by worshippers to perform religious ceremonies to commemorate Imam Ali’s death.
Celebrations of Christian Orthodox Easter on 2 May in Egypt and Palestine were subdued for the second year in a row due to coronavirus restrictions, albeit with fewer restrictions this year. In East Jerusalem, about 2,500 Christian worshippers gathered on 1 May at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to receive the Holy Fire. However, Israeli police had closed off the entrances to the Old City and prevented families from entering the Church, citing coronavirus restrictions (The National News, 1 May 2021). Israeli police also arrested and assaulted some worshippers who tried to gain access to the church. A delegation of 37 diplomats were among those initially denied entry, and one of their members was beaten by Israeli police (Arab News, 3 May 2021; JPost, 2 May 2021). In Egypt, almost all churches implemented restrictive measures, and some closed their doors altogether as part of measures to curb the spread of the virus.
Easter Sunday was soon followed by the start of the last 10 days of Ramadan, which are considered to be the holiest days due to the belief that Lailat al-Qadr — one of the most blessed days of the year — falls on one of the odd-numbered nights of the last 10 days of Ramadan. The start of these 10 days brought with it a wave of further restrictions and violence across Egypt, Palestine, and Yemen.
In Palestine, East Jerusalem continued to be the epicenter of clashes between Palestinians and Israelis. Israeli authorities continued their tactics of hampering access of Muslim worshippers to Al Aqsa mosque, repeatedly attacking Muslim worshippers at the start of the week. Security forces stormed the mosque, firing stun grenades and tear gas inside the building to disperse those praying (Maan News, 7 May 2021). This wave of repression takes place against a backdrop of intense clashes due to threats to evict Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Sheikh Jarrah is a Palestinian neighborhood outside the walls of the Old City, with land and property claimed by Jewish settler groups in Israeli courts (BBC, 11 May 2021). For many Palestinians, the conflict goes beyond land disputes, with the evictions viewed as part of the Israeli objective to make Jerusalem the capital of Israel.
The compound effect of repeated clashes throughout Ramadan due to restrictive actions by Israeli authorities, and the events at Sheikh Jarrah, led to the outbreak of some of the worst violence between the two sides witnessed in years last week. Jerusalem Day celebrations — an Israeli national holiday commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem — on 9 May were expected to be especially volatile this year, but other focal points of conflict such as Sheikh Jarrah resulted in more intense clashes.
In Yemen, the prevention of tarawih prayers by pro-Houthi forces intensified in the last 10 days of Ramadan. Imams and worshippers were prevented from taking part in tarawih in Sanaa, Ibb, and Hodeidah governorates. The prevention of tarawih prayers by Shiite Zaydi Houthis stems from an Islamic hadith that states that the “best prayer is the one done at one’s home, and in private” (Yemen Scholars, 2021).
Pro-Hadi forces issued several fatwas stating the permissibility of payment of the zakat — an obligatory form of almsgiving in Islam — to support pro-Hadi forces (Al Ayyam, 2 May 2021). This comes as the pro-Houthi Zakat Authority has intensified its tax campaign in Sanaa city. This year they stipulated that people pay the zakat to the Zakat Authority, and forbade them from giving it directly to the poor and needy, as is customary every year (Al Asimah Online, 5 May 2021).
Religious repression against Baha’is and other minorities in Iran continued last week, with the arrest and summons of Baha’i citizens reported in Khuzestan (Human Rights Activists News Agency, 5 May 2021). The Iranian government also broadcast a program that targeted Baha’is and attacked their beliefs on national television, coinciding with a new wave of persecution targeting Baha’is. However, Bahai’s were not the only group targeted, as Zoroastrian candidates running for Islamic local council elections were disqualified in Yazd due to “non-adherence to Islam” (Human Rights Activists News Agency, 7 May 2021). Zoroastrian candidates were not excluded from previous elections; similarly, Sunni Muslims were also disqualified from running in elections the week before last, despite having been included in previous elections.
Finally, Iranian authorities blocked the bank accounts of the Pashamagh Sunni seminary school to prevent the construction of the new seminary school (Baloch Campaign, 7 May 2021). The construction work on the new seminary school had been blocked several times before by the Supreme Leader’s representative in Sistan and Baluchestan. The reasons preventing the construction of the school were not provided, but it is believed to be a form of religious repression towards Sunni Balochs in Iran, who have systematically been targeted by the state.
In Bahrain, Shiite Muslims were allowed back into matams for the first time in a year — just in time to commemorate the death of Imam Ali (LuaLua TV, 2 May 2021). Symbolic funerals were held across the country in commemoration of the day.
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