By Mina Ibrahim
The Ministry of Religious Endowments has closed the mosque and the shrine of Imam Hussain for three days, from Thursday to Saturday, to deter the commemoration of Ashura by Muslim Shi’as in Egypt, a religiously historic day in which Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammed’s grandson, was killed.
The ministry announced on its website that the move aims at preventing the “Shi’a untruths that occur on the Day of Ashura”.
The statement also added that the rituals that take place during these celebrations “have no roots in the Islamic doctrine”.
“This is not the first time we were prevented by the state from commemorating Ashura. However, it is the first time it is openly said that ‘we [the state] do not recognised your beliefs’. Things are clear now,” Al-Taher Al-Hashemi, member of the Shi’a Ahl Al-Bayt World Assembly, told Daily News Egypt on Saturday.
“We are Egyptian citizens, and we have the right to celebrate what we believe in, the same as Sunni Muslims and Copts,” Al-Hashemi added.
This is the second incident of its kind to take place following the 30 June demonstrations that ousted former president Mohamed Morsi.
In October 2013, Mohammed Abdel Razek, the deputy of the ministry at the time, told media agencies that “the ministry will not allow any sect to practice its rituals inside any of the mosques”.
According to the current Egyptian constitution, as well as previous constitutions, all mosques are legally administrated by the Ministry of Endowments.
The state’s official religious institution is not the only entity that is against the commemoration of Ashura in particular, or expressions of the Shi’a identity in general.
Although there are some Sunni Muslims who partake in the Ashura commemoration with Shi’as, and other Shi’a rituals, there has always been a general political and social stance of non-tolerance against the presence of a non-Sunni Muslim ideology in Egypt.
During Mohamed Morsi’s reign, Shi’a cleric Hassan Shehata, two of his siblings, and a student were killed, while dozens of others were injured, as a result of Sunni-Shi’a sectarian violence in the district of Abu Mussalam in Giza.
The killings took place when approximately 24 Shi’as gathered at a local residence to celebrate the birth of Imam Mohammed Ibn Hassan Al-Mahdi, believed to be the 12th and last imam, in Shi’a Islam. The gathering was attacked by a mob armed with Molotov cocktails and other weapons.
Days before the incident, Mohamed Morsi gave a speech in which he supported the Syrian uprising against the regime of President Bashar Al-Asaad. In this speech, Morsi oversimplified the upheaval into a Sunni-Shi’a feud, calling on “the Sunni Islamic world to unite against a Shi’a dictator”.
Isaac Ibrahim, an officer with the Freedom of Religion and Belief department at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), told Daily News Egypt that the government’s move is against the Egyptian constitution and the International Declaration of Human Rights.
“Closing the mosque of Imam Hussein does not only prevent Shi’as from celebrating the Day of Ashura. There are Sunni Muslims who frequently go to this mosque as well,” emphasised Ibrahim. Ibrahim also said that this is not the first act of discrimination committed against Shi’as. He noted that Egyptian authorities have previously imprisoned Egyptian Shi’as, accusing them of insulting Prophet Mohammed and his companions.
In October 2010, under former president Hosni Mubarak, an Egyptian court jailed more than 10 Shi’as, arguing that “they challenged and insulted Islam and the Sunni doctrine”.
Furthermore, in February 2014, a Shi’a citizen named Amr Abdullah was imprisoned for five years for the same reason. Local media reported that Abdullah was arrested while entering the mosque of Imam Hussein to commemorate the Day of Ashura.
Accusations directed towards Shi’as included other dimensions. Shi’as are often labelled as ‘traitors’ and ‘allies’ with non-Egyptian Shi’a countries and groups. This is due to statements made by Shi’a entities and countries whenever anti-Shi’a discrimination takes place.
Moqtada Al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shi’a cleric and the leader of the Al-Sadr Current, heavily criticised the closure of the Imam Hussein mosque.
On his webpage on Friday, Al-Sadr called on Al-Azhar, the largest Sunni Islamic institution in Egypt, to reopen the mosque and the shrine for Shi’a Muslims. He said that such constraints are similar to what Israelis do in Jerusalem to Muslims when they shut Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Furthermore, Anba’ Faris, the state run news agency in Iran, posted a report entitled “Did the Egyptian government violate the constitution with the closure of Imam Hussein mosque?”
The report added that such a procedure will fuel sectarian violence in Egypt and will threaten civil peace.
In April 2013, Egypt’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Civil Aviation set regulations restricting the activities of Iranian tourists in Egypt, limiting them to sites such as the ancient city of Luxor and Red Sea resort areas like Sharm El-Sheikh.
During the same period, the Salafi Call, the religious arm of the Al-Nour Party, warned of a “Shi’a tide” in Egypt, and called for a ban on any contact with Shi’a people. The statements were made while dozens gathered at the acting Iranian ambassador’s house, demanding the cutting of all ties with Iran and the expulsion of Iranian tourists.