Last week in the Middle East and North Africa, state authorities closed down religious sites ahead of religious holidays in Israel, Palestine, and Yemen and repressed religious practices. In Israel, authorities shut down the tomb of a prominent religious figure, citing security concerns. In Palestine, Israeli military forces prevented Muslim worshippers from praying or carrying out any maintenance work at a mosque. In Yemen, Houthi authorities closed down two mosques in Sanaa. In Iran, state authorities continued their systematic repression of non-Shiite religious minorities. Meanwhile, religious authorities in Iraq eased some coronavirus restrictions ahead of the Muslim month of Ramadan.
In Israel, Palestine, and Yemen, state authorities closed down religious sites last week, ahead of religious holidays. In Israel, state authorities pre-emptively shut down an important religious site in Meron ahead of the Jewish commemoration of 7th of Adar –– the birthdate and yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of Moshe Rabbeinu – on 10 March, citing health and safety concerns. On 8 March, Israeli police forces expelled Jewish worshippers who were at the site preparing for the event. The expulsions led to clashes between predominantly Haredi worshippers and security forces guarding the site, which prompted its indefinite closure. The tomb of Rashbi in Meron was the site of a stampede incident last year during the Jewish holiday Lag B’Omer, which left 45 people dead and at least 150 more injured (The Times of Israel, 30 April 2021). Jewish religious leaders and members of parliament have voiced concern that this shut down will persist until Lag B’Omer on 18 May (Hamodia, 10 May 2022).
In Palestine, the local administration for settlements in the Gush Etzion region issued a decision last week to vacate a synagogue that serves the Hasidic community in the Maale Amos settlement and convert it into a kindergarten. The Hasidic community responded by making a collective call for the decision to be revoked (Kikar HaShabbat, 10 March 2022). The decision comes amidst existing plans to expand their synagogue. According to the source, a long-standing feud between some members of the Maale Amos settlement and the Hasidic community is behind the decision (Kikar HaShabbat, 10 March 2022). Meanwhile, in the West Bank, Israeli military forces issued a notice preventing Muslim worshippers from performing prayers and carrying out maintenance work at a mosque in Bethlehem, claiming that the area is an archaeological site.
In Yemen, pro-Houthi forces closed two mosques in Sanaa last week. Al Furqan mosque was shut down to be converted into a headquarters for the Houthis, under the pretext that they were lacking a headquarters in the area. Meanwhile, pro-Houthi forces closed a second mosque in Sanaa to encourage worshippers to go to Houthi-controlled mosques. Pro-Houthi authorities have been conducting systematic campaigns to enforce Yemenis’ ideological commitment to the Houthi movement and mobilize resources for their war efforts.
Last week in Iran, a Revolutionary Court in Zahedan issued death sentences for three Sunni prisoners on charges of membership in an armed opposition group engaging in rebellion against the Islamic ruler and moharebeh – war against God. The court did not provide further details on their alleged activities. The prisoners were initially arrested in September 2019. Meanwhile, in Shiraz, state authorities arrested three Baha’i citizens and transferred them to prison on charges of “propaganda against the state and membership in an opposition group” (HRANA, 7 March 2022).
In Iraq, the fast-approaching start of Ramadan on 2 April prompted religious authorities to make decisions last week, easing health and safety measures at religious sites. In contrast with the previous two Ramadans, the Iraqi Jurisprudential Congregation and the Sunni Endowment Office issued fatwas canceling social distancing measures in mosques. Last year, there were heightened restrictions regarding religious practice, particularly in mosques, due to the high number of coronavirus cases in Iraq. In 2020, the government had banned the admittance of religious tourists into the country to curb the spread of the coronavirus (Shafaq News, 17 July 2021). This year, the Higher Committee for National Health and Safety has also extended the stay limit for religious tourist groups from 15 to 30 days and replaced a negative PCR test requirement with a vaccination certificate requirement. Eased restrictions will have a significant impact on the annual Arba’een pilgrimage performed by Muslim Shiite worshippers at the end of the 40-day mourning period following Ashura. Officials are expecting up to 22 million people to participate in the pilgrimage in early August (Al Araby, 16 November 2016).
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