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Millions of Shiite Muslims Mark Mourning Day of Ashoura

Shiite Muslims beat their chests during the Ashoura mourning ritual, in Istanbul, Turkey, July 28, 2023.
Shiite Muslims beat their chests during the Ashoura mourning ritual, in Istanbul, Turkey, July 28, 2023.

TEHRAN, Iran — Millions of Shiite Muslims in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and around the world on Friday commemorated Ashoura, a remembrance of the 7th-century martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Hussein, that gave birth to their faith.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban cut mobile phone services in key cities holding commemorations for fear of militants targeting Shiites, whom Sunni extremists consider heretics. Security forces in neighboring Pakistan also stood on high alert as the commemorations there have seen attacks in the past.

Not all Shiites, however, were to mark the day on Friday. Iraq, Lebanon and Syria planned their remembrances for Saturday, which will see a major suburb of Beirut shut down and the faithful descend on the Iraqi city of Karbala, where Hussein is entombed in a gold-domed shrine.

Shiites represent over 10% of the world's 1.8 billion Muslims and view Hussein as the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Hussein's death in battle at the hands of Sunnis at Karbala, south of Baghdad, ingrained a deep rift in Islam and continues to this day to play a key role in shaping Shiite identity.

More than 1,340 years after Hussein's martyrdom, Baghdad, Tehran, Islamabad and other major capitals in the Middle East were adorned with symbols of Shiite piety and repentance: red flags for Hussein's blood, symbolic black funeral tents and black dress for mourning, processions of men and boys expressing fervor in the ritual of chest-beating and self-flagellation with chains.

In Iran, where the theocratic government views itself as the protector of Shiites worldwide, the story of Hussein's martyrdom takes on political connotations amid its tensions with the West over its advancing nuclear program.

Iranian state television aired images of commemorations across the Islamic Republic, tying the event to criticisms of the West, Israel and the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in 2020. Anchor Wesam Bahrani on Iran's state-run English-language broadcaster Press TV referred to America as the "biggest opponent of Islam" and criticized Muslim countries allied with the U.S.

In the suburb of Sayida Zeinab near Syria's capital, Damascus, security forces guarded checkpoints after a bomb hidden in a motorcycle exploded Thursday, killing at least six people and wounding dozens more. On Tuesday, another bomb in a motorcycle wounded two people. The suburb is home to a shrine to Zeinab, the daughter of the first Shiite imam, Ali, and granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.

On Friday, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the recent attacks in a statement, claiming that Thursday's attack killed about 10 and wounded about 40 others "during their annual polytheistic rituals." The group's extreme interpretation of Islam holds Shiite Muslims to be apostates.

Iraq will see the main observance of the Ashoura on Saturday in Karbala, where hundreds of thousands are expected and many will rush toward the shrine to symbolize their desire to answer Hussein's last cries for help in battle. Convoys of the faithful arrived throughout the day Friday.

In Pakistan, authorities stepped up security as an Interior Ministry alert warned that "terrorists" could target Ashoura processions in major cities. Security was tight in the capital, Islamabad, where police were deployed at a key Shiite place of worship.

"The Imam's lesson is ... hold on to patience," said Anam Batool, a mourner who took part in a commemoration in Islamabad. "After that, resist falsehood, stand with the truth. Where you must raise your voice against oppression, raise your voice there."