- Sana Khoury
- Religious Affairs Correspondent – BBC News Arabic
With the reduction of travel restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic, major religious gatherings around the world have returned to recovery, after two years of banning millions of people wishing to perform mass rituals, and the religious tourism sector has faltered significantly.
The anniversary of the fortieth anniversary of Hussein is one of the major religious occasions for Shiite Muslims, as millions go to the Iraqi city of Karbala, to visit the shrine of Imam Hussein bin Ali, and to participate in huge processions, the date of which falls this year on September 17.
In the years prior to the epidemic, the influx of visitors to the holy shrines in Iraq was described as “the largest religious gathering and the largest foot march in the world”, as participants from more than forty countries head, a week or ten days before the anniversary, to perform the “duty of condolences” and visit shrines home’s people.
It is not new to say that the travel of Shiite citizens from the Gulf – Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in particular – to shrines and shrines in Iran and Iraq is not entirely easy, given the charged political context between the Gulf governments and Iran, and the escalation of Sunni/Shiite sectarian tension in the Arab region during the past decades.
What is new this year is that many citizens in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have packed their bags, hoping to perform the Arbaeen visit, after reducing health restrictions, only to find themselves in front of new obstacles, described by some of those whom BBC News Arabic spoke to as “more stringent than previous years”, and that they Explicit restrictions on their religious freedoms.
Travel permitted with prior permission
In Bahrain, prominent Shiite clerics announced, a few days ago, that they were banned from traveling to Iraq at the start of the visiting season. Sheikh Maytham Al-Salman tweeted through his Twitter account, declaring that he was prevented on Friday morning, September 9, from leaving Bahrain, “under the justification for not obtaining prior permission to travel to Iraq from the concerned authorities.”
Under the same heading, meaning “not obtaining prior travel permission”, the head of the “Islamic Scholars Council”, Mr. Majid Al-Mishal, was not allowed to leave Bahrain for Iraq to perform the Arbaeen visit.
The Department of Nationality, Passports and Residence Affairs at the Bahraini Ministry of Interior announced a few weeks ago that those wishing to travel to Iraq must submit a “permit request,” in a procedure described as being issued at a time close to the date of the Arbaeen visit, to limit the movement of Shiite travelers.
In the event of travel without obtaining a permit, a Bahraini visitor returning from Iraq is subject to a one-week travel ban as an administrative penalty.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights said that this measure “restricts individual and collective freedoms,” describing it as “particularly discriminatory against Shiite citizens.”
On the other hand, the government in Bahrain announced during previous years the “dismantling of cells” it described as “terrorist”, which had received training in Iran and Iraq.
The Bahraini Ministry of Interior website also lists a series of travel warnings for a number of countries for security reasons, including Ukraine, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, and prohibits travel to Iran “due to the Corona virus.”
Taher al-Moussawi, a Bahraini journalist residing abroad and a leader in the opposition “Al-Wefaq” association, says that there is “restriction and follow-up on all Bahrainis who go to Iraq. It is true that thousands go, but they are being arrested and prevented.”
There is no direct air link between Bahrain and Iraq, so visitors wishing to go through Dubai or Kuwait airports, and from there to Iraq, or through land crossings. Al-Moussawi says: “There are large numbers of visitors who went from Bahrain to Iraq without informing the authority, because there is no legal justification for imposing a travel permit. In the past, there was an understanding among citizens of the conditions for restricting travel during the height of the epidemic, but now there is no justification “.
According to al-Moussawi, “not a small number of those who visit Iraq, men and women, the elderly and young, are subjected to investigation after their return.”
“on the pond”
The official of external relations at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Sayed Yousef Al-Muhafda, says that the government is talking about travel procedures and enforcement of laws, but “just requesting a travel permit to perform a religious ritual, and just being obliged to give your personal data, name and address to the Ministry of Interior, this means that you are under control and oversight.
The governorate points out that there is randomness in the issuance of travel permits, as the person wishing to travel to Iraq fills out a form to obtain permission, but he does not receive written approval or refusal. Discrimination”.
A human rights activist residing abroad says that thousands of Bahraini Shiites who are waiting for approval, and do not receive it, are traveling at a risk “for the blessing,” adding that they may return from the airport or land crossings, and some family members may be allowed to travel, and others are prevented, without clear justifications. What costs individuals financial losses in terms of reservations and tickets.
An official spokesman for the Bahrain government told BP News’s Gulf Affairs correspondent, Nasreen Hatoum, that “Bahrain affirms its commitment to protecting religious freedoms that are guaranteed by the constitution and regulated by national laws, and that citizens’ practice of religious rites is an authentic and guaranteed right.”
The spokesman added: “Regarding the travel of some citizens to the Republic of Iraq to practice some of these rites, given the current instability of the security situation there, it is required to notify the competent Bahraini authorities, and it is a regulatory measure aimed at preserving the security and safety of citizens wishing to travel to any country that witnesses A state of security instability,” stressing that the procedure is “temporary,” and that “the last period witnessed the travel of many citizens to Iraq according to the notification procedures in force.”
For his part, Sayed Yousef al-Muhafaza says that those who have been subjected to restrictions are not “exceptional cases”, but rather a pattern that has “repeated for years,” and therefore considers it a political decision to treat Shiite citizens “as if they were suspicious, and did not owe allegiance to Bahrain.” Therefore, at a time when many people risk performing the visit, others refrain from doing so to avoid investigation.
In Saudi Arabia, the scene does not look much different, according to human rights defenders living abroad, who spoke to BBC News Arabic. The Vice-President of the European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights, Adel Al-Saeed, says that what he describes as “procrastination and lack of clarity” prevail when talking about granting travel permits to Iraq, especially during the Arbaeen visit.
He says: “The procedures are vague and unclear, as some applicants are granted permission to travel and others are rejected without justification or explanation. For example, one of them was granted a travel permit two days before the forty-day date, which means that he will not be able to travel. The lack of clarity causes material losses to people on the one hand, on the one hand, It also pays some of them to take the risk of traveling and thus risk fines or a travel ban later.” According to him, this is due to “the Saudi (government)’s lack of confidence in the Shiite community and its fear of its relations with Shiite incubators.”
For males over the age of forty
As the date of the visit approached, Saudi citizens tweeted on Twitter, going to the official account of the General Directorate of Passports in the country, about the reason for the delay in granting them travel permits to Iraq.
The Saudi authorities had allowed those wishing to obtain travel permits to Iraq to register through the “Absher” platform, which is related to the issuance of passports, but it announced last April that the permit application is only available to males over the age of forty, while allowing the permit applicant to He takes two other people with him, without specifying age or gender.
Al-Saeed points out that the new conditions for granting permits only to males over the age of forty, “besides being discriminatory against women, it puts families in front of difficult choices, because the visit is usually not individual, but includes all family members.”
The delay in issuing travel permits has caused several logistical obstacles, with some of them intending to travel, even without a permit, although this exposes them to financial fines upon return, or to a travel ban that may reach three years.
With the crowds of travelers heading to Karbala at the last minute, during the past days, many visitors were stuck on the land border between Iraq and Kuwait, for hours, according to what a man whose relatives were stranded for more than 12 hours at the border, told BBC News Arabic.
The reason for this, in his opinion, is due to two factors, “the first of which is the congestion and the procedures for organizing entry from the Iraqi side, but also, the accumulation of the number of travelers due to the slow Saudi procedures, and the lack of early permits, which pushes all people to travel at once by land or air, with no A direct travel line between Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
And Saudi tweets said that heavy fines were imposed even on children, for visiting Iraq with their parents, in previous years.
It is difficult to talk to Saudi Shiite citizens from Qatif or Al-Ahsa about their experiences in performing their religious rites, or traveling to religious shrines, but there are accounts of Saudi tourist campaigns and convoys that announce travel offers for those wishing to visit the shrines in Iraq, and we tried to communicate with two of those campaigns, but we We did not get a response.
A Saudi citizen from Qatif residing in Lebanon, who preferred not to reveal his name, says that the authorities cannot impose a direct ban on the performance of Ashura religious rites, as people insist on performing them even in their homes. Husseini banners, and placing controls on pioneers and sheikhs not to discuss any topic outside of purely religious topics.
BBC News tried to contact the General Directorate of Passports of the Saudi Ministry of Interior, to clarify the reasons for the delay and the conditions for granting travel permits, but we did not receive a response before publishing this article.
However, on the media and official levels inside Saudi Arabia, those concerned are talking about the tolerance shown by the authorities towards the Shiite sect during the past years, and the most prominent indicators came during the interview of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with the magazine “The Atlantic” last April, when he said: “You will find a Shiite In the cabinet, you will find Shiites in the government, and the most important university in Saudi Arabia is headed by a Shiite.” He added, “Shiites enjoy a normal life in Saudi Arabia.”
And Saudi media published statements by Shiite clerics, who viewed positively what was said by bin Salman.
On the other hand, Saudi lawyer and human rights defender Taha Al-Hajji told BBC News, “Saudi Arabia uses the issue of restricting freedom of movement and freedom of movement as a punishment, whether by court rulings, or by administrative orders from the Ministry of Interior, even without referring to the judiciary.”
Al-Hajji says that the reasons for granting or refusing travel permits are ambiguous, and it is not possible to understand whether they are actually due to organizational, security or other reasons, but, “there is a negative view of the Shiites as agents.”
He added, “This year, we expected the procedures to be more flexible, easier and faster, with the authorities allowing the authorities to register on the “Absher” service to complete government transactions affiliated with the Ministry of Interior, which is a fast service despite reservations about censorship and privacy violations. But even with this service, the authorities extend the duration of grants Travel permits to Iraq, up to four months, and this service is delayed unlike the rest of the services on the same platform.
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