During the past month, a tumultuous Ramadan came to an end, but incidents of religious restrictions did not abate. Eid Al Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, started with the shutting down of two prominent mosques in Yemen and Iraq. In Bahrain and Egypt, coronavirus restrictions prompted state authorities to shut down mosques and to disperse weddings and funerals. In Palestine, clashes, and repeated provocations over Al Aqsa Mosque access, as well as the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, led to the outbreak of an 11-day exchange of rockets and airstrikes between Hamas and Israel. In Israel, communal violence between Arabs and Jews was reported in several cities. In Iran, the repression of religious groups continues. An Islamic penal code provision made early in the year was used to charge three Christian converts, and at least nine Baha’i citizens were sentenced to prison.
Eid Al Fitr (Feast of Breaking the Fast), which marks the conclusion of Ramadan, brought with it a wave of religious restrictions across the region. In Yemen, pro-Houthi forces shut down Al Saleh mosque, the largest mosque in the country, and its accompanying garden for unspecified reasons during the first and the second days of Eid Al Fitr (Khabar News Agency, 14 May 2021). The garden is often viewed as a meeting place for families and their children to get together during Eid. In Iraq, the Shiite endowment office and its attached Askariyya Shrine seized the Samarra Grand Sunni Mosque and its attached school in Samarra city (Baghdad Today, 10 May 2021). Two days later on 12 May, Shiite Peace Companies militants reportedly removed the employees of the Antiquities Authority from the Sunni Grand mosque in Samarra city, and prevented a unified Eid prayer that the city’s clerics had called for (INPPLUSarabi, 10 May 2021). However, it is unclear whether the Sunni endowment office had approved the seizing of the mosque and school by the Shiite endowment office, and so these alleged seizures spurred criticism in Sunni circles.
In Bahrain, the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments allowed the holding of Eid Al Fitr prayers in mosques across the country under strict precautionary health measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus (Bahrain News Gazette, 13 May 2021). Following Eid prayers, authorities closed down three mosques temporarily for two weeks for reportedly violating the Eid prayer health precautions (Saudi Gazette,15 May 2021). On 21 May, the ministry decided to restrict access to mosques for the five daily Muslim prayers only to vaccinated worshippers who are over 18 years old (Gulf News, 21 May 2021).
Also in Iraq, prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr instructed the mosques to reopen for Friday prayers and set 15 conditions for the return of prayers, including social distancing and limiting both the prayer and the speech to 15 minutes in total. Sadr also said that those who do not adhere to his conditions are “infiltrators” and “cursed” and should be turned in to the authorities (Al Sumaria, 18 May 2021). He had previously suspended Friday prayers on 14 February 2021 due to the coronavirus crisis. While in Egypt, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly announced the start of several measures on 6 May (the last week of Ramadan) that are meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus for the duration of Eid. The measures lasted until 1 June (Sky News, 5 May 2021). Based on these measures, police forces dispersed many weddings and funerals taking place all over the country for not complying with the restrictions. At least 37 weddings have been interrupted by security forces during Eid celebrations after Ramadan. The period after Ramadan is considered ‘wedding season’, and therefore these measures have had a significant impact on these ceremonies.
In Palestine, intensified restrictions by Israeli authorities on the entry of Muslim worshippers to Al Aqsa Mosque during the last days of Ramadan were reported. On 8 May, Israeli police forces closed the Al Qibli prayer hall in Al Aqsa with iron chains to prevent worshippers from entering (Al Watan Voice, 8 May 2021). They also set up checkpoints on Lailat Al Qadr, one of the most blessed days of the year for Muslims, keeping some worshippers from reaching Al Aqsa. These incidents contributed to the eruption of intense clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces both in Israel and Palestine.
These clashes around Al Aqsa, as well as the attempted eviction of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem primarily by right-wing Jewish settlers, led to the breakout of hostilities between Hamas and Israel. On 10 May, Hamas fired rockets into Israel, which Israel counterattacked with airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, starting the 11-day exchange of fire. As the conflict between Hamas and Israel waged on, communal violence between Arabs and Jews was reported in several Israeli cities, including in Lod, Tel Aviv, Nazareth, and Akko. By the time the ceasefire was announced on 21 May, at least 254 Palestinians and 13 Israelis had died (Anadolu Agency, 26 May 2021; Times of Israel, 23 May 2021).
Also in Israel, Jewish worshippers were prevented from accessing the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai during the Rosh Chodesh Sivan Jewish holiday (Kikar, 10 May 2021). This decision comes following an incident last month during the commemoration of another Jewish holiday, Lag BaOmer, where 45 people died due to a stampede.
Meanwhile, instances of persecution of religious groups in Iran, Egypt, and Bahrain were reported. In Iran, recent changes to the Islamic Penal Code led to three Christian converts being charged with “propaganda and educational activities contrary to the holy Sharia of Islam” (Article Eighteen, 15 May 2021). The new provisions state that “anyone who insults the legally recognized religions and Iranian ethnicities in the constitution with the intention to create division, violence or tension in the society” will face severe punishment (Article Eighteen, 15 May 2021). This new provision provides fertile ground for the state to carry out arbitrary arrests of religious minorities, and restricts the right to freedom of expression in Iran even further (Article 19, 10 December 2020).
Following weeks of increasing arrest campaigns directed towards Baha’is, Iranian authorities over the past couple of weeks have sentenced at least nine Baha’i citizens to eight to 73 years of imprisonment. The charges range from “conspiracy against the national security” to “propaganda against the state by spreading the beliefs of the Bahai’s sect” (Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA), 24 May 2021).
In Bahrain, a group of young Shiite men were summoned by Bahraini authorities to the police station in Manama city over their participation in Shiite commemoration ceremonies of Imam Ali (Bahrain Al Youm,18 May 2021). Reasons for the summons were unspecified, but reports pointed to it being related to sectarian discrimination.
In Egypt, a Coptic Christian Orthodox monk was executed in a prison in Damanhour City by Egyptian security forces, with the state thereby carrying out the death sentence upheld by the Court of Cassation on 1 June 2020. The monk had been found guilty of murdering a Bishop in July 2018. Several Egyptian human rights organizations strongly denounce the monk’s sentence and execution. The organizations claim that the court’s verdict contained several procedural irregularities and that it was based on confessions obtained through torture and threats (EIPR, 9 May 2021).
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