FaithWorld

Iraqi Shi’ites mark Ashura without incident, Saudis scuffle in Medina

ashura (Photo: Pilgrims gather between Imam Abbas and Imam Hussein shrines to mark Ashura in Kerbala, December 17, 2010/Mushtaq Muhammad)

More than two million Shi’ite pilgrims in Iraq’s holy city of Kerbala marked Ashura, commemorating the slaying of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Imam Hussein at the battle of Kerbala in 680, with no major violence reported amid tight security. But Saudi security forces dispersed crowds of Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims after scuffles broke out in the holy city of Medina.

Shi’ites from across Iraq, along with thousands of foreign pilgrims — most dressed in black — streamed into Kerbala for the emotive ritual on Friday in which the faithful beat their heads and chests and gash themselves with chains and swords to mourn the event that defines Shi’ism and its split from Sunni Islam.

“According to official statistics, there are more than two million Iraqi pilgrims and 248,000 foreign pilgrims who have entered Kerbala city,” said Mohammed al-Moussawi, head of the Kerbala provincial council.

Security officials assigned thousands of police officers and soldiers to protect the pilgrims as they headed to Hussein’s shrine in Kerbala, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Baghdad. Authorities imposed a city-wide ban on cars and motorcycles to help prevent attacks. Read the full story here.

ashura 2 (Photo: Saudi Shi’ites mark Ashura in Qatif December 16, 2010/Zaki Ghawas)

In Saudi Arabia, the Shi’ite website Rasid.com said a group of Sunnis had attacked several Shiites with stones late on Thursday as they were outside commemorating Ashoura in Medina, Islam’s second holiest city. A local Shiite resident also confirmed the incident to Reuters. He said it had occurred near the landmark Quba Mosque.

Iraqi Christians flee to Kurdish areas or abroad – U.N.

iraq (Photo: An Iraqi Christian refugee lights candles at an Orthodox church in Amman on November 7, 2010 for victims of the attack on Our Lady of Salvation church of Baghdad on October 31/Ali Jarekji)

Thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled their homes to semi-autonomous Kurdish areas and neighbouring countries since a Catholic church in Baghdad was attacked six weeks ago, the U.N. refugee agency has said.

Some 1,000 Christian families, roughly 6,000 people, have arrived in the northern Kurdish areas from Baghdad, Mosul and Nineveh, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said. Several thousand have crossed into Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Many spoke of receiving threats or leaving out of fear. Fifty-two hostages and police were killed when Iraqi forces tried to free more than 100 Catholics taken hostage during Sunday mass on October 31.

Iraq pres rejects Aziz death order, partly because he is Christian

azizIraqi President Jalal Talabani said on Wednesday he will not sign an execution order for Tareq Aziz, the former deputy of dictator Saddam Hussein sentenced to death last month for crimes against humanity.

“No, I will not sign the execution order for Tareq Aziz, because I am a socialist,” Talabani told French television France 24 in an interview. “I sympathize with Tareq Aziz because he is an Iraqi Christian. Moreover he is an old man who is over 70.” (Photo:  A video grab of former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz listening to the court verdict in Baghdad March 11, 2009/Iraqiya TV via Reuters TV)

Iraq’s high tribunal passed a death sentence on Aziz, once the international face of Saddam’s government, in October over the persecution of Islamic parties in Iraq during Saddam’s rule. The Vatican and Russia both called on Iraq not to carry out the death sentence on humanitarian grounds, noting his age and health problems. The Vatican said mercy would help the war-torn country make progress toward reconciliation, peace and justice.

A review of Christian-Muslim conflict and a modest proposal to counter it

conflict 1At a Christian-Muslim conference in Geneva this week, participants agreed to build a network for “peace teams” to intervene in crises where religious differences are invoked as the cause of the dispute. The idea is that religious differences may not be the real problem in a so-called religious conflict, but rather a means to mobilise the masses in a dispute that actually stems from political or economic rivalries. (Photo: Coffins of two of 52 killed in al-Qaeda-linked attack last Sunday on a Baghdad church, 2 Nov 2010/Thaier al-Sudani)

If outside experts could help disentangle religion from the other issues, the argument goes, that could help neutralise religion’s capacity to mobilise and inflame, in the hope of leading to a de-escalation of the crisis.

Is this idealistic? Maybe. However, given the number of crises throughout the world that have religion factored into the equation, it certainly seems worth the effort. Many of these conflicts are not simply battles between religious fanatics, as they may be presented, but calculated agitation by one group against another, usually for political or economic advantage. Some smokescreens are easy to see through, others almost impenetrable.

Christian-Muslim crisis response group to defuse religious tensions

wcc 1 (Photo: Christian and Muslim leaders at Nov 1-4, 2010 Geneva conference/WCC – Mark Beach)

Christian and Muslim leaders agreed on Thursday to set up “rapid deployment teams” to try to defuse tensions when their faiths are invoked by conflicting parties in flashpoints such as Nigeria, Iraq, Egypt or the Philippines. Meeting this week in Geneva, they agreed the world’s two biggest religions must take concrete steps to foster interfaith peace rather than let themselves be dragged into conflicts caused by political rivalries, oppression or injustice.

Among the organisations backing the plan were the World Council of Churches (WCC), which groups 349 different Christian churches around the world, and the Libyan-based World Islamic Call Society (WICS), a network with about 600 affiliated Muslim bodies. They would send Christian and Muslim experts to intervene on both sides in a religious conflict to calm tensions and clear up misunderstandings about the role of faith in the dispute.

“We call for the formation of a joint working group which can be mobilised whenever a crisis threatens to arise in which Christians and Muslims find themselves in conflict,” the leaders said in a statement after their four-day meeting.  “Religion is often invoked in conflict creation, even when other factors, such as unfair resource allocation, oppression, occupation and injustice, are the real roots of conflict. We must find ways to disengage religion from such roles and reengage it towards conflict resolution and compassionate justice,” said the statement issued in Geneva.

Qaeda threat to Egyptian Christians may stir militants

egypt 1 (Photo: Demonstrators at the Amr Ibn El-Aas mosque in Cairo claiming a Christian woman had converted to Islam and was being held prisoner by a Christian church, September 5, 2010/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Militants may feel emboldened by an al Qaeda threat against Egypt’s Christians, even if the network itself might struggle to mount such an assault.

The al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq, which launched an attack on a Baghdad church on Sunday that left 52 dead, has also threatened Egypt’s church.

While there are no signs of a re-emergence of a 1990s-style Islamist insurgency, Egypt remains alert to anything that could stir communal tension that sometimes boils up over issues such as cross-faith relationships and conversions.

Fate of Iraqi Christians will worsen, Catholic experts fear

baghdad church funeral 2 (Photo: Mourners at a 2 Nov 2010 funeral for victims of the attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church/Saad Shalash)

With al-Qaeda declaring war on Christians in Iraq and no end to political instability in sight, Catholic experts on the Middle East fear the fate of the minority Christian community there will only worsen.

The pessimism followed the bloodiest attack against Iraq’s Christian minority since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Fifty-two hostages and police were killed on Sunday when security forces stormed a church that had been raided by al-Qaeda-linked gunmen.

The bloodbath struck fear deep into the hearts of remaining Iraqi Christians and confirmed some of the worst concerns of a Vatican summit on the Middle East held last month that warned of a continuing exodus of Christians from the lands of the Bible.

Fifty-two killed in raid on Iraqi Catholic church

baghdad church 1 (Photo: Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, November 1, 2010/Mohammed Ameen)

Fifty-two hostages and police officers were killed when security forces raided a Baghdad church to free more than 100 Iraqi Catholics held by al Qaeda-linked gunmen, a deputy interior minister said on Monday.

Lieutenant General Hussein Kamal said 67 people were also wounded in the raid on the Syrian Catholic church, which was seized by guerrillas during Sunday mass in the bloodiest attack in Iraq since August. The death toll was many times higher than that given overnight in the hours after the raid.

baghdad church 2 (Photo: Bomb damage outside Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad November 1, 2010/Mohammed Ameen)

The gunmen took hostages at the Our Lady of Salvation (Sayidat al-Najat) Church, one of Baghdad’s largest, and demanded the release of al Qaeda prisoners in Iraq and Egypt.  “This death toll is for civilians and security force members. We don’t differentiate between police and civilians. They are all Iraqis,” Kamal said, adding the number did not include dead attackers.

Vatican synod to mull Middle East Christian exodus

baghdad churchWith Christianity dwindling in its Middle Eastern birthplace, Pope Benedict has convened Catholic bishops from the region to debate how to save its minority communities and promote harmony with their Muslim neighbours.

For two weeks starting on Sunday, the bishops will discuss problems for the faithful ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and strife in Iraq to radical Islamism, economic crisis and the divisions among the region’s many Christian churches. (Photo: Worshippers light candles after Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Baghdad October 3, 2010/Mohammed Ameen)

They come from local churches affiliated with the Vatican, but the relentless exodus of all Christians — Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants — has prompted them to take a broad look at the challenges facing all followers of Jesus there.

Iraqi Christians flee homeland even as war fades

iraq christians (Photo: Family and friends mourn a Christian student killed in attack on Iraq’s Christian minority in Mosul, May 11, 2010/Khalid al-Mousuly)

Bassam Hermiz has slashed prices to clear his stock of electrical appliances, close his shop and join many thousands of other Iraqi Christians abroad. Once numbering some 750,000 in this mainly Muslim country of 30 million, Christians have been trapped in the crossfire of sectarian strife ignited after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s secular dictatorship in 2003.

Alarmed that their flock could face extinction, Iraqi Christian leaders appealed to the Vatican for help. Pope Benedict, also worried about the shrinking Christian presence in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, has called a synod of bishops for October 10-24 to discuss how churches can work together to preserve Christianity’s oldest communities.

Post-invasion bloodshed and chronic insecurity have spooked Iraqi Christians, many of whom feel they have no future here. “We decided to leave after we lost hope of living in peace in Iraq. It was not our choice,” said Hermiz, the shopkeeper who is taking his family from the volatile northern city of Mosul to Holland, where his brother already lives.