Last week in the Middle East and North Africa, Muslim celebrations of the Mawlid – the birth of Prophet Muhammad – were accompanied by religious repression and violence. In Israel and Palestine, the celebrations led to violent clashes between Palestinian Muslim worshippers and Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem and Hebron city. In Yemen, pro-Houthi authorities harassed Yemenis to force them to participate in the Mawlid on 18 October. In Egypt, judicial authorities extended a new type of legal recognition to Evangelical Copts in inheritance matters. In Iraq, the government allowed the sale of alcoholic drinks for the first time since 2003 in Babil governorate. In Iran, regime forces continued their campaign of discrimination and harassment against dissident religious minorities.
In Yemen, Israel, and Palestine, Muslim celebrations of the Mawlid were marred by religious repression and violence last week. In Israel and Palestine, Israeli security forces harassed Muslim worshippers on 18 October, the day of the Mawlid, which led to violent clashes erupting the next day. Israeli security forces interrupted Palestinian celebrations of the Mawlid in Hebron city and East Jerusalem. At Al Aqsa in East Jerusalem, Israeli security forces assaulted worshippers and prevented them from using some facilities of the mosque. Meanwhile, in Hebron city, Israeli security forces stormed the Ibrahimi mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs during Mawlid celebrations. This escalation on the day of the Mawlid led to further violent clashes the following day at Al Aqsa mosque, after Israeli security forces tried to forcibly clear the Damascus gate area, injuring at least 17 Palestinians and arresting at least 20 (Haaretz, 19 October 2021). Earlier in the week, an Israeli public transportation company suspended trips to the Western Wall, which is visited by Jewish worshippers, to avoid property destruction by stone-throwing, possibly in anticipation of this escalation. These are the most violent clashes to have broken out at the flashpoint site in East Jerusalem since the May 2021 clashes during Ramadan. Periods of religious celebrations are often marred by violent clashes in the region, particularly at areas of shared religious significance.
Meanwhile, in Yemen, efforts by pro-Houthi authorities to impose the celebration of the Mawlid on Yemenis reached their climax last week on 18 October. In Sanaa, security forces reportedly shot and killed a man for refusing to put up decorations on his house for the occasion. Across Houthi-controlled territories, school administrators reportedly forced students to pay a special Houthi-imposed Mawlid tax (between 250 and 500 rials, or 1 to 2 USD) as a condition of entry to school. Pro-Houthi authorities have begun imposing various financial levies on Yemenis under the pretext of commemorating the Mawlid since late September at least. Meanwhile, the pro-Houthi administration of Sanaa University warned students that failure to participate in Mawlid-related activities or celebrations would result in the loss of grades. On the day of the Mawlid itself, the pro-Houthi government organized at least eight protest events across its territories to both condemn anti-Houthi forces and to commemorate the Prophet’s birthday. Houthi authorities played recorded sermons of the movement’s leader on large screens during the protests (Al Masirah, 18 October 2021).
In Egypt, in a historic precedent, an Egyptian court last week ruled in favor of splitting a Christian man’s inheritance according to his own denomination’s laws. The Al Attarin Family Court in Alexandria ruled to equally divide the estate of a deceased Evangelical Copt between his nieces and nephews, as per the Coptic Evangelical personal status law. Another court had originally ruled to divide the estate according to Muslim law, which would have deprived the nieces of a share in the inheritance. The court’s decision is considered groundbreaking because it legally recognizes Evangelical Coptic religious law in personal status legal matters, in line with other religious denominations (EIPR, 19 October 2021). Many Copts in Egypt have long complained of inequalities in personal status laws applied to their communities, which they blame on both church and state institutions (EIPR, 16 February 2020).
In Iraq, the government of Al Anbar governorate announced the cessation of social distancing in mosques last week for the first time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Tourism Board granted a permit to sell alcoholic drinks in Babil for the first time since the fall of the Ba’th regime in 2003. The sale of alcohol in Iraq has become increasingly dangerous outside of the Kurdistan region; in the Kurdistan region, a more liberal government allows its sale, and Shiite militias, who are often responsible for this targeting outside of the region, lack influence and presence. ACLED has recorded 65 attacks on liquor stores in Iraq since 2016, with more than half of these occurring in 2020 due to the appearance of new fundamentalist Shiite militias that target alcohol sale and consumption. Islamist parties in the Iraqi parliament have also created legal hurdles for those wishing to produce or sell alcohol, culminating in the passing of a law in 2016 banning “the import, production, and sale of alcoholic beverages” (Al Hurra, 23 October 2016). It is unclear, however, if the 2016 law was ever implemented and applied consistently on the ground; in the Kurdistan region, the local government refused to abide by it (France 24, 26 October 2016).
In Iran, government authorities continued to systematically discriminate against and judicially harass non-Muslim and non-Shiite religious minorities last week. Again, Iranian Baha’is were the main targets. In Qaemshahr, Ministry of Intelligence forces summoned an ophthalmologist and forced him to fire his Baha’i employee. Iranian authorities had previously targeted the employee, permanently sealing off his eyewear shop a few years ago after discovering that he had closed the shop during a Baha’i holiday (HRANA, 17 October 2021). Meanwhile, in Shiraz city, intelligence forces raided the residence of a Baha’i family and confiscated personal belongings, including religious Baha’i books. Security forces also summoned one of the family members for further investigation. Lastly, in Mazandaran province, judicial authorities rejected, without giving a reason, a retrial request by Baha’is for a case in which state authorities confiscated their properties in Ivel village.
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