FaithWorld

Sacred Shi’ite ritual tests Pakistan’s security resolve

ashura (Photo: Shi’ite men at an Ashura procession in Peshawar, January 19, 2008/Ali Imam)

Pakistan is deploying tens of thousands of paramilitary soldiers and police ahead of a religious festival that could be a major security test for authorities struggling to contain militant violence. Many of Pakistan’s minority Shi’ite Muslims, who make up 15 percent of the population, will be vulnerable to suicide bombings when they stage large rallies Friday to mark Ashura, the biggest event in their calendar.

Highlighting concerns, paramilitary forces carry people away on stretchers in mock exercises televised live. Officials say army soldiers will be on standby. Recent suicide bombings carried out in defiance of a series of military offensives which the government describe as successful highlighted U.S. ally Pakistan’s instability.

“Ashura is going to be very tense. There is a danger of terrorists trying to attack processions. We are taking all possible measures to avert that,” a senior security official said.

Blood has spilled between Pakistan’s majority Sunni and minority Shi’ite militants for decades. Sectarian strife has intensified since Sunni militants deepened ties with al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban insurgents after Pakistan joined the U.S.-led campaign against militancy after the September 11 attacks.

Ashura has become a lightning rod for sectarian violence in Pakistan. During the event, Shi’ite mourners beat themselves with steel-tipped flails or slash their bodies with knives to mark the death anniversary of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who was killed during a battle in A.D. 680 in Kerbala, a city in modern-day Iraq. Sunni militants deem the ritual un-Islamic.

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.