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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Religion

WEST BANK: Palestinian Christians denied access to holy places in Jerusalem during Easter

As Christians get ready to celebrate Easter, Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are envious of fellow Christians from all over the world who are able to visit Jerusalem’s holy Christian sites and worship freely while they cannot.

Since Israel cut off East Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories in the early 1990s, Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been required to get Israeli army permission before they can enter Jerusalem.

The situation worsened since the turn of the century and restrictions got tighter after a 20-foot concrete wall was built all around East Jerusalem barring both Muslim and Christian Palestinians from reaching their holy sites in Jerusalem and its Old City.

“For Christians, Holy Week in Jerusalem has a special spiritual connection,” said a statement issued by the Christian community in the West Bank. “The Old City, its gates and roads, the Mount of Olives, Via Dolorosa and the Holy Sepulchre Church, where pilgrims from all over the world journey to, are equally important to the Palestinian Christians of Gaza and the West Bank, who want to join their Jerusalemite Christian brethren in the liturgical events leading to the resurrection, the holiest celebration in Christianity.”

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GAZA STRIP: Kidnapped Italian activist found dead; Hamas condemns rival radical group

Hours after an Islamist extremist group announced it had kidnapped an Italian peace activist in the Gaza Strip, the man's body was discovered in the restive seaside territory. It was the first kidnapping of a Westerner in four years and one of the few times such an abduction has ended fatally.

The hostage, Vittorio Arrigoni, a pro-Palestinian activist for the advocacy group the International Solidarity Movement, had appeared blindfolded in an Internet video released by the Tawhid and Jihad group, which threatened to kill him unless its imprisoned leader and two other members of radical groups were freed by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza.

The group set a deadline of Friday evening, but Arrigoni’s body was found by Hamas police well short of that, Hamas officials said. They said they had arrested two suspects and were searching for a third. Hamas said it "condemns the heinous crime that does not reflect our values, our religion or our custom and tradition," according to an Interior Ministry statement released to Palestinian news media.

But the kidnapping raised questions about Hamas' control over Gaza, and it represents the latest example of how smaller, more radical groups in the territory -– some with alleged ties to Al Qaeda -– are challenging the rule of Hamas, which itself is viewed by Israel and the United States as a terrorist organization.Those groups complain that Hamas has become too moderate.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, has been cracking down on Islamist Salafists over the last 18 months, arresting their members and killing one of their spiritual leaders during an armed clash in August 2009.

Gaza residents said Arrigoni arrived in 2009 aboard a ship challenging the Israeli naval blockade after the 2008-09 Israeli offensive in Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead. His abduction was the first of a foreigner since Hamas took control of the territory. The last foreigner kidnapped here was BBC reporter Alan Johnston, who was abducted in March 2007 and released three months later.

-- Ahmed Aldabba in Gaza City

TUNISIA: New poll shows concern about economy, division over religion


Tunisians are optimistic about the future of their country but remain concerned about the economy and deeply divided on the role religion should play in politics, a new poll finds.

The study, commissioned by the Washington-based International Republican Institute, claims to be the first independent opinion poll since the fall of former President Zine el Abidine ben Ali. It comes at a critical juncture for Tunisia.

On July 24, Tunisians are expected to vote for a national assembly that will be responsible for rewriting the constitution and determining crucial elements of the political system, such as the distribution of powers within the government and whether to legally separate matters of religion and state.

According to the poll, 79% of respondents said Tunisia is going in the right direction, despite the fact that 66% categorized the economy as somewhat or very bad. Job creation topped the list of priorities respondents said the interim government should be pursuing, followed by free and fair elections and stimulation of the economy.

However, respondents were sharply divided on the role religion should play in politics, with 48% saying they were in favor of a political system based on religion and 44% preferring a secular system. Among those, 27% said they felt the Tunisian political system should be "strongly" secular and 21% said it should be "strongly" based on religion. Urban respondents were more likely than their rural counterparts to support a secular system, as were younger respondents over older ones.

The poll's results appear to strengthen comparisons between Tunisia and Turkey, which has achieved mixed results with its attempts to blend a secular political system with the Islamic values shared by many Turks.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: A wave of popular protests driven partially by economic woes forced former President Zine el Abidine ben Ali from power earlier this year. Credit: AFP/Getty Images




IRAN: Reactions to Obama's Nowruz address

President Obama on Sunday delivered his third annual Nowruz address to Iranians celebrating the ancient Persian fire festival that marks the beginning of the new year, reaching out specifically to the young people of Iran, who have made up the bulk of that nation's opposition movement.

"The future of Iran will not be shaped by fear," Obama said after criticizing the Iranian government's crackdown on dissent and even naming several well-known activists who have been imprisoned. "The future of Iran belongs to the young people -- the youth who will determine their own destiny."

So what did Iranians think of Obama's speech? Babylon & Beyond asked people in Tehran.

Ehsan, 24 , an engineer: "First of all, it is in Obama's interest to boost his popularity among Iranians both in Iran and abroad, especially those Iranian expatriates based in the U.S. Secondly, his speech will lift the spirits of Iranians who are in the opposition camp. But on the whole, the Iranian Islamic regime does not care about the speech, and it may even provide some pretext for more suppression. They may say 'Aha, look, we've already said [the opposition protesters] are stooges of America, the great Satan.' Anyway, the speech is good lip service to reform in Iran, and it might be remembered in the collective psyche of Iranians ... and it's good public relations."

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IRAN: Protesters slam Bahrain's royal family, U.S. for crackdown on dissidents

Protest iran bahrain More than 1,000 Iranians took part in an officially sanctioned protest Friday against the royal family of Bahrain and its Western allies in connection with a violent crackdown against largely Shiite anti-government demonstrators.

Protesters in Tehran shouted "Death to Al Khalifa in Bahrain" and "Death to America," referring to the close alliance between the Khalifa ruling family and the United States.

"We are all Muslims," protester Ali Asadpour, 58, told Babylon & Beyond. "We should be united against the arrogant power, the U.S., and we want an Islamic system in Bahrain."

Sunni government loyalists in Bahrain have tried to discredit the protest movement there by alleging it has ties with Iran and the Shiite paramilitary party Hezbollah in Lebanon, a claim the protesters deny.

Nevertheless, the Iranian government has been particularly outspoken in its criticism of Bahrain, and the two countries withdrew their ambassadors this week after the intervention of Saudi troops in Bahrain.

Iranian officials have also condemned American support for Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. President Obama has called on the governments of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to show "maximum restraint" but did not condemn the violence or ask Saudi troops to withdraw from Bahrain.

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LEBANON, LIBYA: Amid Libyan revolt, renewed reports and speculations about missing Shiite cleric emerge

Leb_1845674c August 1978. The influential Lebanese Shiite cleric and philosopher Moussa Sadr flies to Libya for a week of talks with the Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi accompanied by a preacher and a journalist. Sadr and his companions are last seen on Aug. 31 while on their trip to Libya before suddenly disappearing. The three men haven't been heard from since. 

Three decades later as Libya witnesses a popular uprising against Kadafi and the country is plunged into a civil war, renewed reports and speculations about the fate of the missing Iranian-born cleric are emerging and hopes are that the Libyan revolt will help solve the mystery of his disappearance.

The reports and rumors that have surfaced in recent weeks give conflicting scenarios of Sadr's fate, who next month would turn 83. Some say he was killed by orders of Kadafi and buried in a remote part of Libya while others cling to hope that he still might be alive and held in a Libyan jail.

Among those who seem convinced that Sadr is still alive is his daughter Houra, who told Bloomberg via phone from Tehran on Thursday that she had received information that confirmed he is alive and in detention in Libya.

Her version echoes recent claims from some ex-Libyan prisoners and former Libyan officials who reported seeing Sadr in jail, according to the Associated Press and Arab media reports.

Others, however, paint a different, more sinister scenario of the missing cleric's fate.

Last month, Abdel-Monem Houni, a man who previously served as colonel in the Libyan army and partook in the 1969 coup that brought Kadafi to power, told the Arabic daily newspaper Al-Hayat that Sadr was murdered by Kadafi's agents on the order of the Libyan leader and was buried in Sabha in southern Libya.

Houni alleged that his own brother-in-law, Nijmeddin Yazji, was the pilot of Kadafi's private jet and the person tasked with transporting Sadr's body to Sabha to bury it. Yazji was then killed shortly after Sadr's disappearance, according to the defected official.

Like other members of Sadr's family, 68-year-old Sadeq Tabatabaei, who is the missing cleric's nephew, hopes that his uncle will be found alive and return home. But he finds it difficult to grasp and evaluate the conflicting reports and speculations about Sadr's fate that have recently surfaced. 

"We do hope Imam Moussa Sadr is alive and come back to the bosom of Islamic Umma," Tabatabaei told Babylon & Beyond via phone from Tehran. "The whole family of Imam Moussa is worried and follow the news. Personally, I believe there are evidence to prove Imam Moussa Sadr is alive and as well that he is a martyr.... I can not say which kind of evidence outweighs the other."

Tabatabaei added that he thinks Sadr runs a big risk of being killed by Kadafi forces if he's still alive considering the civil war that is currently raging in the isolated North African country.

Born in the Iranian city of Qom in 1928 to a family of prominent Lebanese theologians, Sadr moved to Lebanon in the late 1950s to help empower the country's marginalized Shiite community. Sadr rallied for better socioeconomic conditions for Lebanon's Shiites, was the chairman of Lebanon's Shiite Islamic Council and founded in 1975 the Shiite militia and political party Amal.

It is widely believed in Lebanon that Kadafi decided to have Sadr and two of his Shiite colleagues killed after a quarrel over money rooted in Kadafi's financial funding of militias in Lebanon during the country's 1975-1990 civil war.

But Libyan authorities have said that Sadr and his two colleagues left Libya on a flight to Rome at the end of their visit. Italian authorities say the three men were not on board the plane. 

Two years ago, the Lebanese judiciary indicted Kadafi and 16 of his aides for the disappearance of Sadr, and ties between Lebanon and Libya have been characterized by coldness and animosity ever since the cleric's disappearance.

Meanwhile, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has reportedly said it is following up on Sadr's case and Iranian lawmaker Kazem Jalali was quoted on the website of a Iranian foundation dedicated to pursuing the fate of Sadr as saying that a "special committee has been formed in the parliament to follow the fate of  Imam Mosa Sadr in the wake of the unrest in Libya."

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran

Photo: Shiite students in Lebanon wave Lebanese flags next to a billboard of Imam Moussa Sadr during a protest against Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi in Beirut last month. Credit: EPA





LEBANON: Protest against sectarian system draws large crowds


For the second week in a row, Lebanese took to the streets of Beirut on Sunday to protest against the country's sectarian political system, waving Lebanese flags and chanting Egypt- and Tunisia-inspired slogans such as "People want to topple the regime" and "Revolution."

Some demonstrators carried signs saying "For the good of the country: secular democracy" and "We are all equal" while others had written "No to sectarianism" on their foreheads and wrapped their heads in the flag.

Sunday's demonstration suggested that activist calls for political change in Lebanon were gaining some ground because crowds were significantly larger than at last weekend's rally, which was attended by hundreds.

Thousands of people of all ages marched from Beirut's Daoura area to the city's electricity ministry, where riot police and military were out in force. Upon arrival there protesters sang the national anthem and called for the toppling of the current government system.

Activists organized the rally using Facebook and word was also spread by word of mouth and through some media outlets, protesters told Babylon & Beyond. Some demonstrators said that they had joined the march spontaneously when they spotted it in the streets. 

Lebanon is governed by a complicated and delicate power-sharing agreement, based on political confessionalism that aims to maintain a balance between the country's 18 religious sects. The agreement has been blamed by many as being the cause of serious problems and issues this volatile Mediterranean country has witnessed over the years, including civil war, corruption and cronyism.

"I want to change it," 18-year old student Saja Mortada, dressed in a jacket and head scarf, said. "I am tired of the stealing and corruption. I want a democratic, civil, secular state where state and religion are divided."

None of the Lebanese political coalitions were apparently spared criticism at Sunday's demonstration. The video above, said to have been recorded at Sunday's demonstration, shows protesters denouncing both of Lebanon's two rival political camps, known as the pro-Western March 14 alliance, led by Saad Hariri, and the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition.

Just like last Sunday, the end point of the march was symbolic. Some protesters see the electricity ministry, which is not able to deliver a 24-hour power supply to the country, as a beacon of the current system's incompetence. Last weekend, the protest was staged along the old green line that separated Beirut into Muslim and Christian neighborhoods during Lebanon's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.

Unemployed protester Hassan Hussein, 28, said the sectarian system hasn't brought him much except misery and it was time for it to go.

"I got tired of the current system that uses sectarianism to cover itself and rule us. We young Lebanese have nothing to do. They took everything and divided us. I wish that change will happen," he said. 

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Video: Demonstrators march in the streets of Beirut on Saturday to protest the country's political sectarian system. Credit: YouTube

SAUDI ARABIA: Demonstrators stage rare protests to demand release of political prisoners


Saudi Arabia has so far escaped the demonstrations and popular uprisings that are sweeping the region, but recent developments suggest the ultraconservative kingdom is not immune to protests and unrest.

Media reports say demonstrators took to the streets of areas of Saudi Arabia's oil-producing eastern province Thursday and Friday to demand the release of political prisoners they claim are being held without trial.

According to CNN, one of the main rallying points at Friday's protest was the outspoken Shiite prayer leader Sheikh Tawfeeq Amer who protesters claim was arrested Feb. 25 after calling in a sermon for Saudi Arabia to become a constitutional democracy.

The video above, posted on YouTube, claims to show prosteters marching in the streets in a town in the eastern province Friday to demand Amer's release.

The demonstration comes a day after around 100 Saudi Shiite Muslims gathered for a rally in the same province to call for the release of Shiite prisoners they say are being arbitraily held by the Saudi authorities.

A report from the Reuters news agency said young men were seen marching through Awwamiya, a town near Saudi Arabia's Shiite epicenter Qatif, chanting "Peaceful, peaceful" while waving pictures of Shiites they say have been detained unjustly. A group of policemen observed the protest without intervening, added the report. 

Thurday's and Friday's protests, however, were reported to be much smaller in size than the demonstrations that occurred down in Awwamiya in 2009 after Saudi police launched a crackdown and search for the Shiite preacher Nimr Nimr, who back then had suggested in a sermon that Shiites could one day seek their own separate state.

The vast majority of Saudi Arabia's Shiite community lives in the country's eastern province -- home to most of the kingdom's vast oil resources and also near protest-stricken Bahrain, where members of the majority Shiite population recently have staged massive protests against their Sunni rulers. 

Shiites in Saudi Arabia regularly complain about discrimination and say they still face restrictions in getting some jobs, although their situation has improved somewhat under King Abdullah and the reforms he has implemented. The government denies charges of such discrimination.

Last month, more than 100 Saudi activists and intellectuals called on the king to set up a constitutional monarchy and implement sweeping reforms.

--Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Video credit: YouTube

LIBYA: Popular TV cleric issues fatwa against Kadafi

Picture 26 Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, head of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, issued a fatwa on live television (Arabic link) Monday night urging the Libyan army to kill the country's embattled leader, Moammar Kadafi.

"It is not heroism to fight your people and to hit them with missiles," Qaradawi said in an interview with Al Jazeera, which also hosts his popular show, "Sharia and Life."

Libyan security forces waged a fierce attack on demonstrators in the two major cities of Tripoli and Benghazi on Monday, with many reports that the regime had ordered air strikes against protesters.

Those assertions were bolstered by news that two Libyan fighter jets had landed in Malta on Monday and that the pilots were seeking asylum after refusing orders to bomb demonstrators who had taken control of Benghazi, according to the Times of Malta.

"I say to my brothers and sons who are soldiers and officers in the Libyan Army to disobey when [the government] gives orders to kill the people using warplanes," the cleric said. "I now issue a fatwa urging officers and soldiers who can to kill Moammar Kadafi."

"Shoot him down and relieve the people and the country of his burden," he added. "This man wants to annihilate the people."

--Meris Lutz in Beirut

IRAN: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says Egyptian uprising is an Islamic 'awakening'

Iran-khamenei-irna Iran's spiritual and political leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the popular uprisings against Western-backed autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt represent an "irreversible defeat" for the United States.

Speaking amid heightened security during the Friday sermon at Tehran University, Khamenei went on to draw comparisons between Iran's Islamic Revolution and the recent Arab protest movements, characterizing the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and around the region as an "Islamic awakening."

He also accused the United States of propping up corrupt leaders in the region in order to protect its own interests and those of its ally Israel.

"This is a war between two willpowers: the willpower of the people and the willpower of their enemies," he said. "The Israelis and the U.S. are more concerned about what would happen to their interests in post-Mubarak regime."

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ISRAEL: Researchers see Tunisia as a textbook revolution

Revolutions seem to take place all of a sudden, but usually they don't really come out of the blue. Whether religious, political or economic reasons are behind upheaval, it often reflects a long process that reached a tipping point and a window of opportunity. 

The time must be right but the ground must be ripe, too. In this context, an Israeli research group suggests Tunisia's was a textbook revolution. Not in the sense that it was a perfect storm or that it followed a certain formula -- no two revolutions are the same -- but in the sense that it may actually have begun in school textbooks.

The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE) is a group that conducts in-depth studies of school curriculum throughout the Middle East, checking hundreds of books per country and they way they teach about tolerance and peace.

A comprehensive study of the Tunisian curriculum, completed in 2009 and presented before the European parliament, found that education in Tunisia cultivates equality and is much more progressive in teaching tolerance than any other Arab country.

But it wasn't always so, says Yohanan Manor, a retired Jewish Agency official and political scientist who established the research group a decade ago. According to Manor, Tunisia began instituting educational reform in the mid-1990s, when Zine el Abidine ben Ali (who was overthrown last month) appointed a political opponent as minister of education. Mohamed Charfi, who died a few years ago, was a lawyer and longtime human rights leader in Tunisia and a fierce critic of Ben Ali, in particular concerning human rights issues.

The now-deposed president had placed Charfi in charge of the education ministry, maybe so that  he could keep an eye on him but also because Ben Ali  was interested in letting the rights leader implement his agenda, which was separating religion and state, Manor said, noting that the issue is a longstanding one in Tunisian history.

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TUNISIA: Exiled Muslim leader arrives home after 22 years to throngs of supporters

Could Rachid Ghannouchi be Tunisia's Khomeini?

The exiled sheik returned to his homeland on Sunday after the country's Western-backed secular autocrat was ousted by a nationwide popular uprising.

Over 1,000 supporters turned out at the airport in Tunis to welcome Ghannouchi, the leader of the Nahda Islamist party, which was outlawed and brutally suppressed by ousted President Zine el Abidine ben Ali after it came in second to the ruling party in the 1989 elections with 17% of the vote, according to the BBC.

Although Ghannouchi has been living in exile in London for over two decades, his party and supporters were able to organize an impressive turnout with crowds chanting religious hymns and Koranic verses.

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