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.

Saudi Shi’ites mark Ashura festival in anxious mood

ashura (Photos above and below: Saudi Shi’ite Muslims mark Ashura in Qatif, December 16, 2010/Zaki Ghawas)

Like their Shi’ite brethren across the Middle East, Hussein and his Saudi friends marked the mourning day of Ashura on Thursday, their mood tinged with worry over their future in the strict Sunni Muslim kingdom. Hundreds of black-clad Shi’ites in the small Gulf town of Qatif, in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, rose early to join once-forbidden processions to mark the slaying in 680 of Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein.

Long viewed as heretics or even agents of Iran by the Saudi authorities and hardline Sunni clerics, Shi’ites have been testing pledges to let them practice their rites more freely. Now they fear a reversal in their long struggle for recognition. The freedom to mark Ashura relatively unhindered in Qatif and nearby villages is a fruit of changes launched by King Abdullah since he ascended the throne in 2005.

But the king is about 87 and is in New York for medical treatment. His slightly younger half-brother, Crown Prince Sultan, spent the past two years abroad with an unspecified ailment. With a possible succession in prospect, many Shi’ites worry that a more conservative king might be tougher on them.

Algeria targets Salafist books in battle with hardline Islam

algeria salafi (Photo: Sheikh Chemseddine Bouroubi, a well-known traditional Algerian imam, reads a religious book at a Salafist stand at a book fair in Algiers October 29, 2010/Zohra Bensemra)

Algeria is cracking down on imports of books preaching the ultra-conservative Salafist branch of Islam, officials and industry insiders say, in a step aimed at reining in the ideology’s growing influence.

Salafism is a school of Islam that has its roots in Saudi Arabia and emphasises religious purity. Its followers reject the trappings of modern life, including music, Western styles of dress and taking part in politics.

Algeria has for years turned a blind eye to Salafism, but recent shows of strength by its followers — including some Salafist clerics refusing to stand for the national anthem — have focussed official attention on the group.

Saudi Arabia less rigid with Muslims during haj

haj (Photo: Haj pilgrims arrive to cast stones at pillars symbolising Satan in Mena, November 16, 2010/Mohammed Salem)

Saudi Arabia’s religious police keep such a low profile during the haj, it’s hard to imagine that you are in Islam’s holiest city.

The kingdom, where Islam first emerged around 1,400 years ago, applies a strict form of Sunni Islamic sharia law that imposes gender segregation, forces shops to close during prayer times and prohibits women from driving.

But in Mecca, the enforcement of many of these rules is relaxed during the haj, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim. And with the government investing billion of dollars in recent years to make pilgrimage safer and more comfortable, many pilgrims end up going home as goodwill ambassadors for the country.

Factbox-U.S. cites repression of religious freedom around the world

The United States on Wednesday unveiled its annual survey of religious freedom, citing countries ranging from North Korea to Eritrea as repressing religious liberties.

Following are some of the conclusions from the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report on eight countries previously named as areas of “special concern” over their limits on religious freedom.

religious 1MYANMAR (BURMA)

The report said Myanmar’s military rulers ignored constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and systematically restricted efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political liberties.

Europe cited in US religious freedoms report

minaret 1 (Photo: A cow in a Swiss meadow next to billboard against minarets in Zwillikon November 13, 2009/Christian Hartmann)

The United States voiced concern on Wednesday over deteriorating religious freedoms in many parts of the world, including several European countries where “harsh measures” limiting religious expression have been put in place.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled the latest State Department report on global religious freedom, which rates countries around the world.

“Religious freedom is both a fundamental human right and an essential element to any stable, peaceful, thriving society,” Clinton told a news conference

Haj pilgrims flock to Mount Arafat to beg forgiveness

arafat 1 (Photo: Haj pilgrims at the Plains of Arafat, 15 Nov 2010/Mohammed Salem)

Millions of Muslims gathered around Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammad delivered his last sermon, to beg for God’s forgiveness on Monday, the spiritual climax of the annual haj pilgrimage. Pilgrims flocked mostly on foot to Arafat, a rocky outcrop in a dusty plain a few kilometers away from Mecca, to pray until sunset. They set up tents where they could, squatted on the side of the road in shelters or stayed at the nearby Namira mosque.

A record of at least 2.5 million pilgrims have come to Saudi Arabia to perform this year’s haj, one of the world’s biggest displays of mass religious devotion. So far, the authorities have reported none of the major problems or disasters that marred the event in previous years, such as building collapses and deadly stampedes caused by overcrowding.

But the sheer number of pilgrims was still a worry for the Saudi government. Around 100,000 security forces have been deployed to the oversee the pilgrimage, security officials said.

Saudi Arabia opens Chinese-built haj pilgrimage train

haj 2Hoping to decrease accidents and boost tourism, Saudi has built a railway line to improve transport for millions of Muslims who flock to the kingdom on the annual haj and move en masse from one holy site to another. At least 2.5 million pilgrims are expected to perform the haj, which began on Sunday. One of the world’s biggest religious gatherings, it has been marred in the past by stampedes, accidents and political demonstrations. (Photo: Haj pilgrims in Mina, near Mecca,  November 14, 2010/Fahad Shadeed)

Authorities say the 6.6 billion riyal ($1.76 billion) project will lessen congestion of the pilgrim route swollen with
some 70,000 cars and buses jamming the roads. The railway is the first such project in more than half a century in the world’s top oil exporter. It will ferry pilgrims around holy sites outside Mecca to perform rites such as the “devil’s stoning”, when pilgrims stone a wall in ritual defiance of the devil and temptation.

The 18-km train line has stops at Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifa, haj sites that Islamic tradition says Prophet Ibrahim — the biblical patriarch Abraham — once visited and that Prophet Mohammad established as a pilgrim route 14 centuries ago. The Chinese-built train is the latest high-tech addition to the haj after Saudi Arabia built electric stairways in the Grand Mosque and showers to cool off pilgrims following the haj route. The ticket, good for a week, costs $70.

from Afghan Journal:

Saudi Arabia spot on UN women agency triggers outcry

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The United Nations has set up a new super agency to better fight for the rights of women around the world including Afghanistan. This week UN Women, as the new body is called, held elections to choose countries to sit on the board and the results have triggered a storm of criticism even before the new agency formally comes into being next January. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia were in the running for a seat, and while Iran got displaced at the last minute in the vote, the Saudis are through.

And that has provoked the wrath of rights activists and commentators.  The idea of the conservative desert kingdom, where women cannot drive or take significant decisions without the permission of a male  relative or work as supermarket cashiers, leading a global fight for the promotion of women's rights is hard to accept, they say. How can you take the UN seriously, asks Greg Scoblete in a short piece on  Real Clear World's Compass blog headlined  : Saudi Arabia bastion for women's rights.

When the results of the vote were announced, the United States warmly welcomed the defeat of Iran, saying it would have been an inauspicious start to the board, had  they won. But what about the Saudis, asks Ami Horowitz, a documentary film-maker, in an article in The Huffington Post. How can Washington or the UN justify their leadership of a high-powered body set up to promote gender equality and empower women.

Mecca goes upmarket but commercialism unnerves some Saudis

meccaSitting in the marble lobby of a luxury hotel in Mecca, Moroccan bank director Mohammad Hamdosh gets a breather from the cacophony of pilgrims bustling around the Grand Mosque in Islam’s holiest city. Millions have flocked to the city in Saudi Arabia for the annual haj pilgrimage, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it. But some can afford more than others, and a controversial construction boom is catering to their needs.

“Every pilgrim comes according to his means. God gave me money, so why shouldn’t I stay in this hotel?” says Hamdosh, on a trip that has cost him 12,000 Euros ($16,545). “Haj is tiring so it’s good to have a room to rest.” (Photo: The Kabaa andt the Grand Mosque dwarfed by luxury high-rise hotels, 12 Aug 2010/Hassan Ali)

Inside the mosque, all pilgrims are equal as they circle the black stone known as the Kaaba toward which Muslims around the world turn in prayer every day. But outside an array of towering five-star hotels have sprung up where the wealthy can bask in a 24-hour view of the Kaaba. The high-rises dwarf the mosque and the surrounding town, nestled in the mountains in the hinterland of the port city Jeddah.