Last week in the Middle East and North Africa, the Iranian government continued its campaign of targeting religious minorities in the country. In Bahrain and Israel, negative reactions to the celebration of LGBT Pride Month continued. In Yemen, pro-Houthi authorities closed another two Sunni Islamic centers in Sanaa, bringing the total number of closures to six since the start of June. In Palestine, at least two imams were targeted for their condemnation of the killing of political activist Nizar Banat by Palestinian Authority (PA) security officers in the West Bank. In Egypt, the supreme administrative court issued an unappealable ruling banning any non-specialized persons from delivering fatwas, sermons, or religious lessons.
Last week in Iran, the Revolutionary Court in Karaj sentenced three Christian converts of Muslim background to five years imprisonment and a 400 million rial (about $9,500 USD) fine each on charges of “deviant propaganda and educational activities contrary to the holy Sharia of Islam” (HRANA, 30 June 2021). Moreover, judicial authorities rejected a parole request by a Christian prisoner who was arrested earlier this month for establishing a ‘house church.’ The man’s request was rejected despite meeting all the criteria for parole (Article 18, 29 June 2021). At the same time, the Iranian state continues to prosecute Baha’i citizens. A court of appeals in Tehran upheld a previous guilty verdict against a Baha’i woman, finding her guilty of “managing illegal groups and factions with the aim of disrupting national security” (HRANA, 29 June 2021). The woman, an Iranian motocross champion, was sentenced to eight years imprisonment and three years of probation in a psychiatric facility. She was also banned from leaving the country for two years.
Additionally, a political prisoner who was reportedly arrested during protests in 2019 was sentenced to death last week. The prisoner had been found guilty on the charge of “waging war against God (Moharebeh)” by “destroying people’s property to oppose the state” (HRANA, 30 June 2021). A Moharebeh charge, a notion adopted from the Islamic sharia, is rarely used against political prisoners.
In Bahrain, Sheikh Mirza al-Mahrous, a Shiite cleric, began a hunger strike in Jaw Prison last week over his alleged maltreatment by prison guards and their refusal to allow him to see his son, who is also jailed in the same prison (GIDHR, 1 July 2021). Human rights groups have criticized the appalling conditions faced by Shiite political prisoners in Jaw, where clerics appear to be targeted with an array of particularly discriminatory measures (Amnesty International, 14 June 2021).
Meanwhile, LGBT Pride Month in June continued to garner negative reactions in Bahrain and Israel last week. In Bahrain, the raising of the LGBT flag by the US diplomatic mission on 2 June in Manama in celebration of LGBT Pride Month continued to arouse anger among some Bahrainis. Opponents circulated online videos of themselves burning LGBT flags, including in front of the US embassy in the capital (LuaLua TV, 1 July 2021). In Israel, a small number of religious residents of Mitzpe Ramon protested an LGBT pride parade that took place on 2 July for the first time in the town, despite it being after the end of LGBT Pride Month (Haaretz, 2 July 2021). Several counter-demonstrations also took place at the same time in favor of holding the parade.
In Yemen, pro-Houthi authorities closed the Al Resalah and Al Wala’a Quran memorization centers in Sanaa city last week. The closures were part of an ongoing campaign, with authorities targeting Salafi-affiliated Islamic institutions in the city for the fourth week in a row (Al Asimah, 27 June 2021). While Houthi authorities claim that these centers were shut down for not having the right permits, other sources suggest that pro-Houthi forces may be shutting these centers down in an effort to rally more people to attend their own summer schools (Al Mashhad Al Yemeni, 17 June 2021). Simultaneously, pro-Houthi forces arrested four people for allegedly consuming and promoting alcohol, one in Sanaa (Al Mashhad Al Yemeni, 30 June 2021), and three in Taizz (Al Mashhad Al Yemeni, 1 July 2021). Furthermore, the Houthi-controlled government reportedly established a ‘secret’ committee to collect private information on public sector employees, allegedly to discern and verify their religious identities and that of their families (Al Asimah, 29, June 2021).
Meanwhile, in Palestine, the fall-out from the killing of activist Nizar Banat by PA security officers on 24 June has been felt all over the West Bank. On 1 July, the Palestinian Ministry of Religious Endowments in the West Bank issued a notice preventing a Palestinian imam from delivering the Friday sermon in a mosque in Qalqilyah city (Nabd, 1 July 2021). The notice came after the imam criticized the killing of Banat and performed an absentee funeral prayer for the activist. Meanwhile, in Ramallah, an unidentified armed group opened fire on the home of another imam after he also gave a Friday sermon condemning the killing of Banat (Hadarat, 26 June 2021).
In Egypt, a ruling was issued by the supreme administrative court last week that forbids non-specialists from issuing fatwas, and forbids anyone without a license from al-Azhar or the Ministry of Religious Endowments from giving sermons in mosques (Masrawy, 26 June 2021). This ruling is both final and unappealable. The legal codification of the ruling is also possible, with a related law currently being prepared in parliament. According to the sitting judge, the ruling will “fight terrorism” by ensuring that all imams or any religious leaders are functioning within the confines of the state, and pre-approved scripts for sermons (Youm7, 26 June 2021). This ruling is the latest move in an ongoing judicial campaign targeting political Islam in Egypt and could be described as a reaction to the Muslim Brotherhood’s previous ascension to power.
In Iraq, the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court rejected a request by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to establish a special criminal court in Erbil to prosecute some 300 Islamic State militants held in its prisons. The court cited sovereignty-related concerns in its decision: primarily the KRG’s desire to appoint non-Iraqi judges and prosecutors to the court (Rudaw, 27 June 2021).
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