Last week in the Middle East and North Africa, the commemoration of Muslim religious festivals triggered clashes and increased repression, while state authorities continued their repression of religious minorities. In Palestine, the commemoration of Al Isra’ wal Mi’raj (Night Journey and Ascension) of the Prophet Muhammad prompted clashes between Israeli police and Muslim worshippers at the flashpoint site of Al Aqsa compound. In Iraq, authorities deployed military and police forces to ensure the safe passage of Muslim pilgrims to Najaf for Al Isra’ wal Mi’raj commemorations and Shiite Muslim pilgrims to Baghdad for Imam Musa Al Kadhim commemorations. In Bahrain, prison authorities punished Shiite prisoners for participating in religious activities associated with Imam Musa Al Kadhim commemorations. In Iran, the state continued its discrimination and repression of non-Shiite religious minorities.
In Palestine, commemorations of the Islamic festival of Al Isra’ wal Mi’raj of the Prophet Muhammad at Al Aqsa compound in Al Quds city last week led to the breakout of violence involving worshippers and Israeli state forces. The clashes took place at the stairway leading to Damascus Gate, a popular site for Palestinians to gather before heading to Al Aqsa Mosque for prayers, due to efforts by Israeli police to control the growing crowds. The confrontations left 31 rioters injured, while Israeli forces arrested 20 others. The gateway has become one of Jerusalem’s most charged sites, following the setting up of iron barriers by Israeli police in 2021 to prevent Palestinians from gathering at the steps during Ramadan. In a bid to reduce tensions in the area this year, Israeli authorities announced that they would be forgoing the iron barriers at Damascus Gate during Ramadan and would allow people to hold cultural activities and to set up tents and kiosks to sell food (Asharq Al-Awsat, 1 March 2022). However, with Ramadan less than a month away, these confrontations raise doubts about the prospect of reduced tensions.
In Iraq, authorities strengthened security measures to Najaf and Baghdad ahead of the commemoration of Islamic religious festivals last week. In Najaf city, the Iraqi army, Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and the Imam Ali Combat Division deployed forces in various locations as a security measure to protect pilgrims commemorating Al Isra’ wal Mi’raj of the Prophet Muhammad. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Iraqi police forces closed several roads to protect visitors during the Shiite Muslim pilgrimage marking the death anniversary of Imam Musa Al Kadhim – the seventh Imam of Twelver Shiites – on 26 Febraury. Religious pilgrimages are often tumultuous events in Iraq that require a heightened level of security due to sectarianism, which often target Shiite pilgrims and religious celebrations (Crisis24, 19 September 2021). The increased security is mainly in response to the threat from Sunni extremists, including the Islamic State (IS). The highest threat of attack exists in Baghdad and on routes to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf at least a week before and after the event.
In Bahrain, commemoration events for the death anniversary of Imam Musa Al Kadhim were met with punitive measures in prisons last week. Prison administrators across the country punished and prevented Shiite prisoners from contacting their families for a week following their participation in the Imam Musa Al Kadhim commemorations in prison. This is driven by the Sunni Al Khalifa regime’s crackdown on Shiite believers.
In Iran, state authorities continued their systematic repression of non-Shiite minorities last week. In Mashhad city, the Special Clerical Court rejected a parole request from prominent Sunni cleric prisoner Fazlur Rehman Koohi (former Friday prayer Imam of Peshamag village), despite the request meeting all of the set criteria required for parole (Baloch Campaign, 2 March 2022). Koohi was first imprisoned in 2017 following his criticism of Iran’s involvement in regional wars, the state’s policies in Sistan and Baluchestan province, and the Revolutionary Guards’ distribution of weapons among Baloch tribesmen (Baloch Campaign, 1 March 2022). He has previously been summoned by the Special Clerical Court on multiple occasions as a form of harassment (Rissmaan, 12 February 2022). In Tehran, court authorities also denied parole to an imprisoned Christian convert for the fourth time. He was initially sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment in 2017 on the charge of “acting against national security by establishing a house church” (HRANA, 1 March 2022). Also, in Tehran city, Iranian prison administrators refused to provide appropriate medical treatment to a critically ill Gonabadi dervish prisoner following his contraction of COVID-19 (HRANA, 2 March 2022).
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