Last week in the Middle East and North Africa, state authorities continued repressing communal religious practices under the pretext of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. In addition, they also targeted dissident religious minorities for repression. The Bahraini and Iraqi governments imposed restrictions on Shiite religious rituals and travel to limit the spread of the coronavirus in anticipation of the upcoming annual Shiite Arbaeen pilgrimage to Karbala in Iraq. Meanwhile, in Egypt and Israel, religious celebrations were also cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In Iran, Christian converts from Islam and practitioners of mysticism were arrested, while Iraqi authorities arrested a follower of a controversial messianic Twelver Shiite religious movement. In Yemen, pro-Houthi authorities harassed missionaries belonging to the transnational Sunni Tablighi Jamaat group, while the government took steps to Islamize school curriculum according to the Houthi interpretation of Islam. In Palestine, increased tensions were reported from the closure of the Ibrahimi mosque by Israeli authorities for the second time this month due to Jewish celebrations of Yom Kippur.
In Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, and Israel, religious and state authorities announced restrictions on the celebration of religious festivals last week amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In Iraq, Shiite worshipers began to travel to Karbala city for the annual Arbaeen pilgrimage on 27 September, which commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn, the third holy Imam of the Shiite faith (Al Kawther TV, 8 September 2021). The Iraqi government has, however, imposed restrictions on the participation of foreign Shiites in the pilgrimage for a second year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Iraqi Commission of Border Entries announced last week that it will only allow foreign pilgrims to enter the country through the three designated international airports of Baghdad, Najaf, and Basra, banning international travel across land borders. In Egypt, a major Sufi religious celebration in Tanta city, the Mawlid (birthday) of Sidi Ahmad Al Badawi, was cancelled for the second year running, under the pretext of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Two million worshipers were expected to attend the Mawlid celebrations. In Israel, the spiritual head of the Druze community announced the cancellation of the Druze visit and celebrations at the tomb of Sablan in Hurfeish village, as part of the authority’s procedures to control the spread of the coronavirus. Finally, in Bahrain, the Jaffaria Endowment Directorate announced that the mourning processions will be allowed for religious occasions across the country during the month of Safar (the second month of the Islamic calendar). They will, however, be limited to the vicinity of the hussainiyya — Shiite congregation halls used for the performance of religious ceremonies — to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
In Iraq, Yemen, and Iran, state authorities targeted non-Muslim religious minorities and heterodox Muslim groups. Iraqi security forces reportedly arrested a follower of the Ansar Al Mahdi Movement for distributing pamphlets that “question the sources of the Shiite faith and Arbaeen pilgrimage” in Thi Qar governorate (Shafaaq News, 17 September 2021). The Ansar Al Mahdi Movement is a transnational group within Twelver Shiite Islam that believes the Iraqi Shiite cleric, Ahmad Al Hassan, is the Al Yamani, an eschatological figure in Shiite Islam who presages Judgement Day (Almahdyoon.com). The group has also been targeted by Iranian authorities in the past (HRANA, 26 June 2020). Meanwhile, Iranian authorities continued their systematic repression of religious minorities. In Gilan province, police forces raided the homes of three Christian converts from Islam in Rasht city last week, and arrested them for running a house church. Police also arrested 79 people for “promoting ‘Emergent Mysticism’ by holding superstitious and gender-mixed rituals” in Gilan province (HRANA, 12 September 2021). ‘Emergent Mysticism’ is a term often used by Iranian media and state sources to describe a form of New Age spirituality practiced in Iran and inspired by Eastern religions, European philosophy, and psychoanalysis (Mehr News, 8 June 2019).
In Yemen, pro-Houthi security forces expelled preachers belonging to the Tablighi Jamaat, a transnational Sunni-Salafi missionary movement, from a mosque in Ibb governorate. Earlier this year, pro-Houthi authorities began a campaign of repression targeting Salafi groups and mosques (for more see this ACLED Regional Overview). Meanwhile, the president of the pro-Houthi government, Mahdi Al Mashat, declared on 16 September that all Yemeni state institutions will be required to hang Houthi-approved Quranic verses and hadiths (quote) of the Prophet Muhammad on their walls. The pro-Houthi government also introduced a new ‘sectarian’ literacy curriculum in state schools. The new curriculum reportedly espouses a narrative of Islamic history that teaches Shiite notions and beliefs contested by other Muslims, such as the universal validity of the Imamate and the racial supremacy of the Hashemite bloodline (Al Asimah, 16 September 2021).
Finally, in Palestine, Israel authorities repressed Islamic religious practice last week amid Jewish celebrations of Yom Kippur. In Hebron city, Muslim worshipers were again prevented from practicing at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Patriarchs for the second time this month. Israeli military forces also reportedly assaulted employees of the Palestinian Ministry of Endowments while enforcing the closure (The Palestinian Information Center, 15 September 2021). The Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Patriarchs is located in the Israeli-controlled section of Hebron known as H2, which was divided between Muslims and Jews following the massacre on 25 February 1994 by a Jewish settler, which left 29 Muslim worshippers dead (Al Jazeera, 26 Feb 2016). Repeated closures of the mosque by Israeli authorities have led to an increase in riot activity in the city over the last month, particularly between Israeli settlers and Palestinians. These sites of shared religious practice often become flashpoints of increased tensions and clashes during periods of religious celebrations.
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