Shiite Muslims in Middle East celebrate solemn holy day of Ashura

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Millions of Shiite Muslims — from Iran to Afghanistan to Pakistan — celebrated Ashura on Monday, one of the most emotional occasions in their religious calendar, marking the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein. in the seventh century. .

Security forces, particularly in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, were on high alert for any violence. In the past, bloody attacks have marred the festival across the Middle East, as Sunni extremists who view Shiites as heretics take advantage of the holy day to attack large gatherings of mourners.

Shiite Muslims were to mark the holy day on Tuesday in Iraq and also in Lebanon, where a large procession normally closes Beirut’s largest suburb. With power divided in Lebanon among the country’s religious sects, Ashura presents an opportunity for Lebanon’s Shiites to show their strength.

In the Iraqi city of Karbala, where Hussein is entombed in a gold-domed shrine, religious charities have set up jars of rice, bread and beans to feed pilgrims. Thousands often run to the shrine to symbolize their desire to respond to Hussein’s last cries for help in battle.

Crowds of mourners were few in Kabul, where the country’s Shiites have suffered a wave of brazen attacks by the local Islamic State affiliate, which has sought to undermine the new Taliban government. The repeated bombing has rattled Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara minority, the Shiites, who previously suffered persecution from the Taliban and fear that their new rulers, who took power a year ago when US and NATO troops withdrew, they will allow the violence against their community to continue.

Shiites make up more than 10% of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims and see Hussein as the legitimate successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Hussein’s death in battle at the hands of Sunnis in Karbala, south of Baghdad, entrenched a deep divide in Islam and to this day he continues to play a key role in shaping Shiite identity.

More than 1,340 years after Hussein’s martyrdom, Baghdad, Tehran, Islamabad, and other major Middle Eastern capitals were adorned with Shi’ite symbols of piety and repentance: Hussein’s blood-red flags, symbolic black funeral tents, and black mourning garments. , processions of men and boys expressing fervor in the ritual of chest beatings and self-flagellation with chains.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, authorities cut mobile phone services in key cities holding commemorations for fear of bombing by militants. Internet monitoring group NetBlocks confirmed on Monday that Afghanistan was experiencing major service outages.

Pakistani police were out in force along the procession routes. The Taliban have closed the roads leading to Shiite neighborhoods and mosques in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have encouraged Shiites to carry out their devotions. However, they did not designate Ashura as a national holiday this year, as Afghan authorities have done in the past. They also banned major processions for fear of violence after a series of bombings in Shiite-dominated areas.

Despite the threat of attacks, hundreds of crazed Shiites poured into the streets of Kabul to beat their heads and chests in unison. They whipped each other with sharp chains to the point that blood splattered the streets.

The Afghan mourners struck a defiant tone.

“Those who want to prevent us from commemorating this day will take their wish to the grave,” said Habibullah Bashardost, adding that the community had prepared for more violence.

“Even if these people who are commemorating today are martyrs, we have our next generation to continue this path,” Bashardost said.

Another participant, Ahmadullah Hussaini, said his presence at the bloodletting ritual under the shadow of targeted attacks delivered a succinct message: “We are not afraid of anything, not even death.”

In the Shiite power of Iran, thousands of men and women dressed in black packed the streets of Tehran. Green plumage, the color of Islam, fluttered in the air. Camels covered in multicolored cloth paraded through the city, evoking how Hussein left Mecca with a small group of companions. Iranians beat their chests in mourning and sang in unison, while some black-clad mourners wept.

“Somehow, I feel like I should mourn, because Imam Hussein was treated brutally and unfairly,” said Nasrin Bahami, a 65-year-old participant in the Tehran procession. “I love the pride of him, the bravery of him. He is a symbol, a role model.”

In Iraq, where the largest Ashura rallies were expected to take place on Tuesday, black flags of grief waved on the main streets of the capital. Portraits of the revered saint hung from the doors of almost every house in the Shiite-dominated suburb of Sadr City.

This year’s Ashura in Iraq coincides with a deepening political crisis between Shiite political rivals. Thousands of supporters of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the parliament building last week. to prevent Iranian-backed parties from forming a government. His sit-in continues, with al-Sadr invoking Hussein’s sacrifices to stoke religious fervor.

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Associated Press writers Samya Kullab in Baghdad, Rahim Faiez and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, and Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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