Egypt Shias have fiercely condemned a decision by the Religious Endowments Ministry on Thursday to close al-Hussein mosque in downtown Cairo for Ashoura, the biggest event in the Shia Muslim calendar.
“We are deeply sorry to worshipers for the mosque closure due to threats from Salafis wanting to disturb the interim government with troubles,” Shia leader Sheikh Salem El-Sabagh told Egypt Independent.
Sabagh said that the government should have deterred threats from Salafis.
“We are looking forward to the possibility that the new Constitution could include an article that guarantees the freedom of belief and the right of citizenship to strip Egyptians of hatred and any religious or ethnic discrimination,” Sabagh said.
The Shia leader expressed his anger at photos being spread on news websites of Shias celebrating Ashoura with their upper part naked and covered in blood due to self-flagellation.
“These are unacceptable traditions adopted by non-Egyptian Shias,” he explained.
He empathized that Egyptian Shias celebrate Ashoura with the reading of Quran and Azkar, which is unique to Ashoura celebrations and can be read in any place and at anytime.
Ashoura celebrations include chanting and self-flagellation to commemorate Hussein, the Prophet Mohamed’s grandson who died in the battle of Karbala in Iraq in the year 680. The vast majority of Egyptian Muslims, however, follow the Sunni denomination of Islam.
Echoing Sabagh’s opinion, Mohamed Seif Allah, a 49-year-old Shia said: “The [ministry] does not have the right to issue such a decision. It’s a violation of freedom.”
“We are not atheists. We are Muslim believers,” he bemoaned.
Seif Allah went to El-Hussien mosque to celebrate Ashoura as he used to every year, he found many Shias there, but this time, he was surprised to find the mosque completely closed.
Seif-Allah noted, however, that he used to find the shrine closed every year, but this year something new happened. He found the whole mosque locked.
“We are calling on the Endowments Ministry to give up control of Hussien mosque,” said Seif Allah.
He continued: “Shias need to celebrate the event, but if security is not guaranteed, we should demand military force to safeguard our worship.”
Seif Allah emphasized that the suspension of Hussien mosque did not necessarily guarantee security and prevention of altercations between both Shias and Salafis.
“I’ve seen a man with his mother go to commemorate the event, but when he saw the mosque closed, he want a few meters away and started to read some Azkar and Quran texts. He was then suddenly attacked by a bystander but police officers fixed the problem, and it was really appreciated,” Seif Allah said.
Seif Allah argued that the government should amend Article 219 and Article 47 in order to guarantee freedom of belief.
Article 219 states that the laws of Egypt should be based on Sharia, as interpreted by “Sunni Islam.”
When asked if he expects Shias to organize a protest refusing the ministry decision, he answered: “Yes, I expect anything [in response].”
Seif-Allah said that Egyptian Shias’ celebrations do not look like the Iraqi Shias’ celebration called “the repentant” and that there is a story related to their belief that explains the reasons behind their ceremonies.
Tarek Issa, another Shia, welcomed the ministry’s decision alleging that it is good to avoid any clashes between Salafis and Shias and that he would celebrate at home instead.