Tehran, Iran – Millions of Shia Muslims – from Iran to Afghanistan and Pakistan – marked the holiday of Ashura on Monday, one of the most moving occasions in their religious calendar, commemorating the martyrdom of the 7th century of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Hussein.
Security forces, particularly in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, were on high alert for any violence. In the past, bloody attacks have marred the festival in the Middle East, as Sunni extremists who view Shiites as heretics seize the holy day to target large gatherings of mourners.
Shia Muslims were due to mark the holy day on Tuesday in Iraq and also in Lebanon, where a large procession usually closes Beirut’s larger suburbs. As power is divided in Lebanon between 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 buried in a gold-domed shrine, religious charities have set up vats of rice, bread and beans to feed pilgrims. Thousands of people usually rush to the shrine to symbolize their desire to answer Hussein’s last calls for help in battle.
Crowds of mourners were thin in Kabul, where the country’s Shiites have come under a brazen wave of attacks from the local Islamic State affiliate, which has tried to undermine the new Taliban government. The repeated bombings have rocked Afghanistan’s Shia Hazara ethnic minority, which has already been persecuted by the Taliban and fears that its new leaders – who took power a year ago when US and military troops NATO withdraw – don’t allow violence against their community to continue.
Shias make up more than 10% of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims and regard Hussein as the rightful 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 continues to this day to play a key role in shaping Shia identity.
More than 1,340 years after Hussein’s martyrdom, Baghdad, Tehran, Islamabad and other major Middle Eastern capitals have adorned themselves with symbols of Shiite piety and repentance: red flags for Hussein’s blood, symbolic burial tents black and black robes for mourning, processions of men and boys expressing their fervor in the ritual of blows to the chest and self-flagellation with chains.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, authorities have cut mobile phone services in major towns holding commemorations for fear of militant shelling. Internet monitoring group NetBlocks confirmed on Monday that Afghanistan is experiencing significant service disruptions.
Pakistani police were out in force along the procession routes. The Taliban have closed roads leading to Shia neighborhoods and mosques in Afghanistan.
The Taliban encouraged Shias to practice their devotions. However, they did not designate Ashura as a national holiday this year, as Afghan authorities have done in the past. They have also banned large processions for fear of violence after a series of bombings targeting predominantly Shia areas.
Despite the threat of attacks, hundreds of frenzied Shiites showed up on the streets of Kabul to beat their heads and chests in unison. They whipped themselves with sharp chains to the point of splattering blood in the streets.
Afghan mourners adopted 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 commemorating today are martyred, we have our generation to come to continue on this path,” Bashardost said.
Another participant, Ahmadullah Hussaini, said his presence at the blood-letting ritual in the shadow of targeted attacks delivered a succinct message: “We are not afraid of anything, not even death.”
In Iran’s Shia powerhouse, thousands of men and women dressed in black filled the streets of Tehran. The green plumage, the color of Islam, floated in the air. Camels covered in multicolored fabrics paraded through the city, reminiscent of how Hussein set out from Mecca with a small band of companions. Iranians beat their chests in mourning and sang in unison, while some mourners dressed in black wept.
“Somehow I feel like I have to mourn because Imam Hussein was brutally and unfairly treated,” said Nasrin Bahami, a 65-year-old participant in the procession. from Tehran. “I love his pride, his bravery. He is a symbol, a model.”
In Iraq, where the largest Ashura rallies were due to take place on Tuesday, black flags of grief waved on the capital’s main thoroughfares. Portraits of the revered saint hung on the doors of almost every house in the Shia-dominated suburb of Sadr City.
This year’s Ashura in Iraq coincides with a deepening political crisis between Shia political rivals. Last week, thousands of supporters of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the parliament building to prevent Iranian-backed parties from forming a government. Their sit-in continues, with al-Sadr citing Hussein’s sacrifices to stir up religious fervor.
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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