FaithWorld

Shi’ites say they endured reign of terror under martial law in Sunni-ruled Bahrain

(Martial law troops at Salmaniya Hospital in Manama March 18, 2011/Hamad I Mohammed)

Bahraini Shi’ites say they have endured a reign of terror during 11 weeks of martial law imposed to break up a pro-democracy movement that for the first time threatened the control of a Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab dynasty. Martial law was lifted on Wednesday. The authorities hope this will show investors and tourists that the island state is back to normal.

Shi’ite dissidents fear repression will go on. Thousands have been detained or dismissed from jobs in a crackdown that has targeted those who took part in six weeks of protests centered on the capital’s Pearl Roundabout. Dozens of Shi’ite places of worship have been pulled down or vandalized.

Twenty-one people, seven of whom are abroad, are on military trial for trying to overthrow the government. They include figures from Shi’ite opposition parties who had advocated making Bahrain a republic, as well as the Sunni leader of secular group Waad and independent Shi’ite rights activists. Four people have died in custody and two Shi’ites have been sentenced to death for the killing of a policeman.

The crackdown has for now stifled an unprecedented pro-democracy movement inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia that toppled long-time U.S. allies. The government says the protests were manipulated by Shi’ite power Iran.

Did Bahrain’s Shi’ite opposition squander its democracy chance?

(Thousands of protesters gather at Pearl Roundabout in the heart of the Bahraini capital Manama February 15, 2011/Hamad I Mohammed)

As martial law comes to an end in the Gulf Arab state of Bahrain this week, opposition activists are wondering whether they threw away what might have been the first real chance for democracy in the Gulf Arab region.

Shortly after young Bahrainis, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, converged on a roundabout in early February, the government offered dialogue with opposition parties on political reforms. But the talks failed to get off the ground. After weeks of behind-the-scenes discussions during which sectarian tension worsened between the Shi’ite majority and Sunnis who saw the ruling Al-Khalifa family as protection, Saudi troops poured in on March 15, martial law was declared the next day and the roundabout encampment was broken up on March 16.

Bahrain Sunni says majority Shi’ite opposition must change leaders

(An anti-government protester waves a Bahraini flag during a rally in Manama March 3, 2011/James Lawler Duggan)

Bahrain’s opposition must change its leadership for the divided Gulf Arab state to move on with political reconciliation after crushing a pro-democracy movement led by majority Shi’ites, a Sunni cleric said on Saturday. Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Mahmoud said the democracy movement, which began in February when protesters inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt occupied a roundabout in Manama, had been hijacked by Shi’ite opposition leaders with a sectarian agenda who were in contact with Iran’s clerical leadership.

Mahmoud led a team of Sunni negotiators coordinating with Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa in talks with the opposition days before Saudi troops entered Bahrain to help the government break up the protest movement and arrest its leaders in mid-March. He said Shi’ite leaders, headed by Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the largest opposition group Wefaq, had overplayed their hand by trying to marginalise the royal family in the talks on political reform and accused them of taking orders from Iran — a familiar Sunni charge against group.

Bahrain Shi’ite leader backs the royal family, rejects alleged Iran links

(Head of Al Wafaq Society, Sheikh Ali Salman, speaks during an anti-government protest at Bahrian's Foreign Ministry in Manama March 4, 2011/James Lawler Duggan)

The leader of Bahrain’s main Shi’ite opposition party said on Sunday his goal was to help bring political reform, rejecting accusations of taking orders from Iran or seeking to install Shi’ite religious rule. Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the opposition group Wefaq, said his party supported the Al Khalifa family as rulers and wanted to help the government with constitutional reforms.

“We said we want a constitutional monarchy, not a republic. We are for a gradual move to a democratic system, so we are not against the ruling family,” Salman told Reuters in an interview. “We have national demands that have nothing to do with Iran. We are proud of being a sensible, mature and progressive political movement that doesn’t need to take instructions from Iran or any other country.”

Egyptian Christians to end two-week sit-in protest

(Coptic Christian women protest after clashes between Christians and Muslims in downtown Cairo May 8, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

Egyptian Christians holding a sit-in in downtown Cairo agreed to end nearly two weeks of protests on Friday, state television reported, after authorities promised to meet some of their demands. Witnesses said some of the protestors had begun preparing to go home after one main protest leader, Father Metyas Nasr, an Orthodox priest, agreed to a government offer to free five young men detained on Thursday following clashes outside a church in the eastern Cairo suburb of Ain Shams.

State news agency MENA said authorities will organise a meeting between Christian and Muslim clergymen on Saturday to discuss the subject of two closed churches in Ain Shams. Nasr was not immediately available to comment.

Rare rally tests Vietnam’s religious tolerance

(Catholic seminarians attend Easter Sunday Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral in Hanoi April 24, 2011/Kham)

Vietnam has deployed troops to contain a rare mass protest by ethnic Hmong people that is testing the government’s tolerance of minority Christians, just weeks after human rights activists accused leaders of persecuting another hill tribe. As many as 7,000 Hmong people began to gather several days ago in the far-flung mountains of Dien Bien Province, near the northwestern border with Laos and China, apparently for religious reasons although some were advocating an independent kingdom, according to diplomatic, government and other sources.

The unrest was unlikely to pose a threat to the government but the demonstration is the biggest involving ethnic minorities since unrest in the Central Highlands region in 2001 and 2004. Details were scant from the hard-to-access region but a Catholic priest close to the area cited followers as saying troops had been deployed and the protesters had detained at least one government official sent to negotiate.

Syria’s Assad retrenches into power base of his Alawite Shi’ite sect

(A supporter of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad holds aloft a photograph of the president at Hamidiya market in Damascus April 30, 2011/Khaled al-Hariri)

President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly relying on his Alawite power base to crush pro-democracy protests that have posed the boldest challenge to the Assad family’s 41 years of rule over Syria. Assad, an Alawite, sent army and secret police units dominated by officers from the same minority sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, into mainly Sunni urban centers to crush demonstrations calling for his removal for the last six weeks.

Their use of tanks to shell the city of Deraa last week, storming of mosques and attacks on unarmed civilians — as reported by residents and activists — have raised the stakes.  Reports say that Sunni conscripts, Syria’s majority sect, refused to fire at their co-religionists.

Days of protest after Christian governor named in southern Egypt

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(A Coptic Orthodox church in Cairo, April 18, 2009/Tarek Mostafa)

Muslims in southern Egypt protested for a third day on Sunday over the appointment of a Christian governor, saying his predecessor, also a Christian, had failed to solve their problems. Thousands rallied outside the governor’s office in Qena and prevented employees from entering, blocked highways leading to the town and sat on a railway line into the province demanding that the appointment of Emad Mikhail be reversed.

Egypt’s interim military rulers, who took control when President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising, selected Mikhail last week as one of several new appointments to replace officials associated with his autocratic regime. The protesters say Mikhail’s predecessor, Magdy Ayoub, failed to stem sectarian violence and address poverty and unemployment, which grew during his tenure. Witnesses say some Coptic Christians joined the protest as well.

“The experience of a Coptic governor has failed. There is no objection to his Coptic identity but the previous governor left a negative impression of Christian officials,” Youssef Ragab, a witness in Qena, told Reuters by telephone.

France starts ban on full-face veil, factbox on veils in Europe

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(Kenza Drider, a French Muslim of North African descent, wearing a niqab at the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris April 11, 2011/Jean-Paul Pelissier)

France’s ban on full face veils, a first in Europe, went into force on Monday, making anyone wearing the Muslim niqab or burqa in public liable to a fine of 150 euros or lessons in French citizenship.

Mainstream Muslim groups, which had a six-month grace period after the law was passed to explain it to their supporters,  opted not to protest at its entry into force. “We’ve already had our debate about the law and now our position is clear: we respect French law 100 percent,” said a spokesman for the French Council of the Muslim Faith.

France’s ban on full face veils goes into force

(Official poster for the information campaign about France's full face veil ban/SIG)

(Official poster for the information campaign about France's full face veil ban. The quote says "Nobody can wear clothes meant to hide the face in public."/SIG)

France’s ban on full face veils, a first in Europe, went into force Monday, exposing anyone who wears the Muslim niqab or burqa in public to fines of 150 euros (£131.90).  France’s five-million-strong Muslim minority is Western Europe’s largest, but fewer than 2,000 women are believed actually to wear a full face veil. Many Muslim leaders have said they support neither the veil nor the law banning it.

The timing is sensitive after France’s ruling political party, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP, called a debate on the place of Islam in France, a move that some say risked stigmatising a portion of the population.