Shia Muslims in Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan mark Ashura

BAGHDAD –

Shiites in Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan sang, paraded and beat their chests on Tuesday as they marked Ashura, one of the most important dates in the religious calendar, which commemorates the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein in the 7th century.

Shiite symbols of piety and penance covered the major cities of Iraq, where Hussein was believed to have died in the Battle of Karbala, south of Baghdad, in 680 AD.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people gather in Karbala, some 80 kilometers south of Baghdad, to observe the solemn holy day.

Shiites view Hussein and his descendants as the legitimate heirs of the prophet. His death at the hands of a rival Muslim faction embodies the split between the Sunni and Shiite Islamic sects and continues to shape the identity of the minority branch of Islam today.

Public Ashura rituals often fuel sectarian tensions in places like Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan, where the two main sects of Islam reside.

Security forces were on high alert for any violence, as Sunni extremist groups that consider Shiites heretics have used the occasion to launch attacks in previous years.

Pakistan’s Interior Ministry has warned that militants could attack Ashura commemorations. Under heightened security measures, mass demonstrations continued for a second day in Islamabad and Pakistan’s major cities, where participants marched, rhythmically beating their bodies with sharp chains.

In Iraq, powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr used the emotional religious occasion to drum up support for his movement, deepening divisions among the country’s Shiites. Unable to form a government, Iraq was plunged further into political chaos last week when thousands of al-Sadr supporters stormed and occupied the parliament building. Their sit-in continues outside the assembly, making it impossible for lawmakers to meet and raising the specter of civil war.

In Sadr City, a Shia-dominated suburb of Baghdad, al-Sadr’s portrait hangs on almost every door. The processions of men and boys expressed extreme fervor at the Ashura rituals of self-flagellation. They hit their heads and chests in unison and whipped themselves with chains until they bled.

“We inherited this from our parents and grandparents,” said participant Hamza Abdul-Jalil. “God willing, we will continue down this path.”

In Lebanon, where Shiites make up about a third of the Mediterranean nation’s 5 million people, processions shut down areas across the country and Beirut’s largest southern suburb, the stronghold of the militant group Hezbollah.

Tens of thousands of men, women and children dressed in black marched through the streets waving yellow Hezbollah flags. The chants of mourners and the thunder of men beating their chests echoed in the air.

“At your service, oh Hussein,” they shouted.

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