Over the past month in the Middle East and North Africa, authorities continued to impose state-sanctioned interpretations of Islam on their citizens, and to harrass religious minorities and to restrict their activities. In Yemen, opposing pro-Houthi and Saudi-led coalition forces destroyed mosques while carrying out missile and airstrikes. In Palestine, tensions flared at the evacuated Homesh settlement in the West Bank, following the killing of a yeshiva1A Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts, primarily the Talmud and the Torah, and halacha (Jewish law) (Chabad Online, 2022). student and religious settler by unidentified Palestinian assailants. In Iran, a provincial representative of the Supreme Leader of Iran, in an unprecedented move, dismissed a prominent Sunni Friday prayer imam and launched a harassment campaign against his supporters. Meanwhile, morality-related events were reported in Iraq, Yemen, and Iran.
In Yemen, Iraq, and Iran, multiple religious buildings and properties were destroyed and desecrated over the past month. In Yemen, pro-Houthi forces destroyed a mosque in the Usaylan district with a ballistic missile, causing casualties among worshippers (2 December News, 3 January 2022). Pro-Houthi forces also seized and desecrated Abu Al Hayaa mosque in the Maqbanah district (Aden al Ghad, 25 December 2021). In addition, pro-Houthi forces raided, looted, and seized a Quranic school in the Dar ash Sharaf area, south of Ibb. Pro-Houthi forces have raided and taken control of Quranic schools in the past, especially ones affiliated with Salafi groups.
Furthermore, the Saudi-led coalition conducted airstrikes in Sanaa, destroying a mosque among a number of other buildings. In Iraq, meanwhile, unknown militants destroyed the — presumedly Shiite — Sayed Khalaf Holy Shrine in Thi Qar governorate’s Rifai district with an explosive device. In Iran, municipal authorities in Chabahar city bulldozed an old Sunni Baloch cemetery to repurpose the land (Baloch Campaign, 27 December 2021).
In Egypt, Yemen, and Iran, state authorities continued to harass members of dissident religious groups and to restrict their freedoms and rights over the past month. In Egypt, security forces at Cairo International Airport prevented a Shiite journalist from traveling abroad and confiscated his passport. After the incident, the journalist was prosecuted for “spreading Shiite thought and establishing anti-state groups” (EIPR, 11 December 2021). The Egyptian state does not recognize Shiite Islam as a distinct Muslim denomination, and Shiite Egyptians face many legal and social challenges in Egypt, including mob violence and legal harassment (EIPR, 3 July 2016).
In Yemen, pro-Houthi forces shut down mosques and seminaries affiliated with the Zaydi scholar Muhammad Abdullah Udh in the city of Huth.2Huth is located ‘Amran governorate in northern Yemen. It has a historical reputation of being a center for Zaydi Shiite clerical learning. Huth is also the hometown of the Houthi tribe, which the eponymous founders of the Houthi Movement belong to (Al Thawra, 15 December 2021). The move comes after he issued a fatwa declaring the impermissibility of fighting with the Houthi Movement (Yemen Voice, 2 January 2022). Pro-Houthi forces also launched a campaign targeting Zaydi religious leaders who supported the fatwa and their followers, abducting dozens of people in Sadah and Amran governorates.
Over the past month in Iran, the Golestan provincial representative of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei dismissed a Sunni Friday prayer imam, Mohammad Hossein Gorgij, from his post in Azadshahr city. According to an opposition source, the dismissal of a Sunni clergyman by a representative of Supreme Leader Khamenei is unprecedented, and it prompted a wave of criticism from Iran’s Sunni community (HRANA, 17 December 2021). Gorgij’s dismissal comes after he was accused of blaspheming against Shiite Islam by hinting that the marriage of the second Shiite Imam, Al Hassan, may have been illegitimate (BBC News, 17 December 2021). Amid the controversy surrounding his dismissal, the Special Clerical Court3The Special Clerical Court is a special judicial body that handles crimes committed by Muslim clerics, regardless of their denomination. It is separate from the Iranian judiciary and is accountable only to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a Twelver Shiite ayatollah (Tamadonfar, 2001). summoned seven Sunni clergymen from Galikesh city, some of them his relatives, to pressure Gorgij to avoid criticizing the regime publicly (Sunni News, 29 December 2021). Ministry of Intelligence forces also arrested Gorgij’s appointed replacement for refusing to take up the position in protest. They also arrested a Sunni convert in Mashhad city for criticizing Gorgij’s dismissal on social media. Iranian security forces also arrested a Sunni cleric in the city of Kamyaran in Kurdistan province after he criticized the regime. Meanwhile, in Sistan and Baluchestan, Ministry of Intelligence forces coerced Sunni Baloch clerics into attending government-sponsored gatherings commemorating former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Qasem Soleimani in Khash city (Baloch Campaign, 30 December 2021).
Meanwhile, over the past month in Israel, the state inconsistently applied a ban on the entry of foreigners into Israel, discriminating against non-Jewish religious groups. Despite the ban, which was issued in response to the rise of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, an Israeli inter-ministerial team approved the entry of tourist groups that fall into the category of “Jewish tourism.” Contrastingly, other groups, including Christians wishing to visit Israel for Christmas, had their requests to enter denied (Haaretz, 15 December 2021). Israeli authorities also refused to issue permits for 331 Christian Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to visit Christian holy sites in the West Bank to perform prayers and to celebrate Christmas. The Israeli civil administration claims that the permits were refused because the applicants had relatives who lived in the West Bank without the approval of the Israeli authorities (Aldameer, 2 Jan 2022). Israel monitors Palestinian movement between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and Palestinians have to obtain permits to move from one area to the other. Permits usually allow stays for several days, which, if exceeded, expose Palestinians to potential prosecution.
In Iraq, Yemen, and Iran, morality-related events were reported over the past month, as authorities introduced laws to impose adherence to the state’s interpretation of Islamic morality. In Iraq, government authorities introduced several new regulations criminalizing acts considered disrespectful of Muslim sanctities. The local government in Karbala governorate announced that it would begin to implement its 2012 Karbala Sanctity Law that criminalizes actions deemed “to go against the religiosity of the governorate” (Shia Waves, 21 December 2021). It also announced the formation of a special committee to “follow-up its implementation” (Shia Waves, 22 December 2021). Karbala city is the site of the martyrdom of the third Shiite Imam, Al Husayn, and among the most holy Shiite cities and centers for Twelver Shiite clerical institutions (BBC News, 26 May 2013). Among the criminalized acts are displaying women’s clothing in store windows or on sidewalks, singing or playing music in public, and establishing or running gambling dens (Al Sumaria TV, 22 December 2021). Despite this declaration, the governorate had already previously prosecuted people for morality-related crimes under this law last year. Meanwhile, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Erbil Governor’s Office issued guidelines restricting “night parties” and prohibiting both alcohol consumption in public and gambling (Basnews, 15 December 2021). The same guidelines also include a clause allowing the governor to unilaterally cancel or reschedule events if they coincide with religious occasions or days of national mourning. These guidelines come after an Egyptian singer performed a much-publicized concert in Baghdad close to the death anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, eliciting criticism from Iraqi officials and social media users (BBC News, 17 December 2021).
In Yemen, pro-Houthi authorities issued new restrictions on the movement of Yemeni women over the past month, banning them from leaving the capital unless in the company of their mahram (male guardian). Pro-Houthi authorities have implemented similar policies restricting women’s movement in the past, usually under the pretext of preventing ‘immorality’ and gender-mixing. In Iran, authorities running the state-owned Behesht-e Zahra cemetery announced a ban on installing images of unveiled women on tombstones, claiming such images will “hurt the souls of the deceased” (Iran International, 27 December 2021).
In the West Bank, tensions between Palestinians and Israelis flared around the evacuated Homesh settlement following the killing of an Israeli yeshiva student and religious settler from Shavei Shomron settlement by an unidentified Palestinian assailant on 16 December. The Homesh settlement was first established in the late 1970s and was subsequently evacuated in 2005 under the Israeli unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip (Al Monitor, 27 December 2021). However, since 2005, former residents of Homesh, other settlers, and right-wing activists have revisited its ruins regularly, trying to return to the site and rebuild the village (Al Monitor, 27 December 2021). While a yeshiva that operated at Homesh was demolished in 2005, a makeshift yeshiva has been operating illegally for the last few years (Al Monitor, 5 January 2022). Since 16 December 2020, the area has witnessed increased violent confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians as well as increased protest and property destruction incidents. On 9 January, protests by settlers outside the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem threatened to “bring down the government over Homesh” (The Jerusalem Post, 10 January 2022).
© 2022 Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). All rights reserved.