Last week in the Middle East and North Africa, state authorities repressed religious practices under the pretext of security and curbing the spread of the coronavirus. In Bahrain, government authorities summoned Shiites for participating in communal mourning rituals in violation of coronavirus-related safety measures, while Iraqi authorities closed another border crossing for foreign Shiite pilgrims travelling to Shiite holy lands in the country. In Palestine, Israeli authorities cancelled a Jewish festival in Jenin and closed off Al Aqsa to Muslim worshipers for purported security concerns. Meanwhile, in Yemen and Iraq, state authorities issued new measures to further impose state interpretations of Islam. In Yemen, pro-Houthi authorities replaced Sunni preachers with their own in Bayhan district, and they also imposed new religious taxes for the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad in another district and governorate. In Iraq, the supreme judicial authority formed a new committee to monitor social media for posts that contravene Islamic morality. Finally, in Iran and Yemen, religious minorities continued to face discrimination. In Iran, Baha’i students were prevented from entering higher education, and security forces prosecuted Baha’is and followers of the Circle of Mysticism movement, while a Jewish cemetery was seized and destroyed in Yemen.
In Bahrain and Iraq, state authorities enforced restrictions on Shiite religious practices last week as part of coronavirus-related safety measures. In Bahrain, authorities summoned administrators of two hussainiyyas — Shiite congregation halls used for the performance of religious ceremonies — in Manama last week for holding mourning processions, presumably in violation of coronavirus safety measures. The mourning processions were held to commemorate the death of the eighth Twelver Imam, Al Ridha. In Iraq, the Commission of Border Entries reopened and then closed two land border crossings to Iranian pilgrims hoping to participate in the annual Arbaeen pilgrimage on 27 September, which commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn, the third holy Imam of the Shiite faith. The closure was ordered to prevent an increase in coronavirus cases after reports of thousands of Iranians entering into the country (Shafaaq News, 27 September 2021). The Iraqi government had previously banned international travel across its land borders for foreign pilgrims due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In Palestine, Israeli authorities restricted religious practices for purported security reasons last week. In the West Bank, Israeli authorities cancelled the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah festival near Jenin that is part of the Sukkot holy period — a weeklong holiday that commemorates God’s protection of the Israelites after they left Egypt. The government cited increased instability in the region as the cause of the cancellation, following an armed clash between the Israeli military and Palestinian militiamen earlier during the week. Additionally, Israeli police forces also denied Muslims access to the Al Aqsa mosque and compound twice last week. On 28 September, they prevented a group of Israeli Muslims from accessing the compound and arrested two of them. The Muslims’ visit was planned by Qawafel Al Aqsa, a group that organizes visits to Al Aqsa for Arab citizens of Israel (Qawafel Al Aqsa, 2021). On 30 September, Israeli forces closed down Al Aqsa for several hours after a Palestinian woman attempted a knife attack on Israeli policemen, opening it later for Jewish worshipers only.
In Yemen and Iraq, state authorities implemented new measures to further impose official state interpretations of Islam on citizens last week. In Yemen, pro-Houthi forces replaced a number of Sunni preachers and imams in the recently captured Bayhan district with those loyal to the Houthi Movement. Pro-Houthi authorities also announced a requirement for school students to shout the Sarkhah — the Houthi slogan — during morning school assemblies and reportedly changed some school names to ‘sectarian’ ones. Furthermore, pro-Houthi authorities imposed a new special religious tax on residents of Bani Al Harith district and Ibb governorate, to be paid on the anniversary of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday on 18 October. In Iraq, the Supreme Judicial Council formed a committee to monitor activities on social media that are contrary to the “Islamic principles of the constitution” (Shafaaq News, 30 September 2021). The practices targeted by this new commitee include ‘wife-swapping,’ the promotion of atheism, and prostitution.
Moreover in Yemen, unidentified groups seized and bulldozed a Jewish cemetery in Mualla district in Sanaa last week. This is the first report of the desecration of a Jewish religious property in Yemen since ACLED-Religion data coverage started on 30 January, 2021X. The near-extinct Jewish community in Yemen has come under increased discrimination and pressure to leave the country since the start of the Yemeni Civil War, especially from Pro-Houthi forces.
Lastly, in Iran, the regime continued its systematic discriminatory policies against non-Shiite religious minorities last week. At least 17 Baha’i students across the country were denied entry into higher education after failing the University Entrance Exam last week. The students were given a ”General Disqualification” result for the exam, which has been used in past years as a pretext to prevent Baha’i students from advancing in the education sector (HRANA, 1 October 2021). Iranian security forces also arrested a Baha’i woman without charge in Qaem Shahr, and raided the home of a Baha’i family in Tehran. In both cases, state forces had previously arrested the Baha’is in question, or their family members (HRANA, 30 September 2021). Moreover, forces from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) arrested nine followers of the Circle of Mysticism movement in Tehran, Alborz, and Qom provinces (HRANA, 28 September 2021). The Circle of Mysticism is a syncretic movement that combines elements from Islamic mysticism and New Age philosophy to promote faith healing. The Iranian government has banned it in the country and has declared its leader a “false mystic” and “apostotate from Islam” (RFE/RL, 14 August 2015).
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