Shi'ites hold rare protests in eastern Saudi Arabia

Demonstrators demand more freedoms and rights following dispute over religious police filming female pilgrims at cemetery.

saudi matawwa religious police 88 (photo credit: )
saudi matawwa religious police 88
(photo credit: )
Members of Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite minority shouted anti-government slogans and demanded more freedoms and rights in rare protests that were part of the worst confrontations in years between their community and the authorities in the overwhelmingly Sunni country. Prominent Shi'ite clerics and intellectuals called on the government Wednesday to launch an objective investigation into the dispute that triggered the tensions. It began with an argument Friday night near al-Baqee Cemetery in Medina, Islam's second holiest city. The cemetery contains the graves of revered imams. Shi'ites say members of the religious police, who maintain an office at the cemetery, filmed female pilgrims and refused to hand over the tapes or destroy them. A Saudi official, however, blamed the Shi'ite pilgrims for the trouble, accusing them of performing religious rituals offensive to other worshipers and authorities at the cemetery. Shi'ites say riot police were heavy handed in dealing with the pilgrims, beating them with batons and arresting some of them. That, they say, has added to a general feeling of Shi'ite disenchantment over being marginalized by the government. The tensions began a week after King Abdullah ordered the most significant changes in government, the armed forces, the judiciary and the religious establishment since he became king in 2005. The Shi'ites had hoped for appointments as ministers or that they would be represented in the council of senior scholars that had been restructured to include all schools of Sunni Islam. But no Shi'ites were chosen for those positions. "There's a feeling that the Shi'ites' ambitions have not been realized as hoped and that could have played an indirect role in inflaming emotions," said Najib al-Khonaizi, a Shi'ite columnist. "We have to admit that there's tension in the Shi'ite street." Relations have long been tense between Saudi Arabia's majority Sunnis and the Shi'ites, who make up a small minority of the country's 22 million Saudi population. Shi'ites, who are considered infidels under the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam widely followed in the kingdom, routinely complain of discrimination. Outspoken Shi'ite critics have been jailed, and many Shi'ites claim to have been banned from such jobs as the religious police and teaching religion classes. Many Shi'ites say the government started the latest dispute deliberately. "There was a flagrant aggression on women's rights and the Shi'ite visitors," Sheik Hussein al-Mustapha, a prominent cleric, told the AP. "It was a premeditated action by extremist men who want to put an end to visits by Shi'ites visitors." "We demand an investigation into the incident in order to put an end to these ugly practices," he added. A Saudi official, however, said the Shi'ite pilgrims triggered the dispute by practicing rituals deemed by others to be "religious infractions." Shi'ite pilgrims to al-Baqee Cemetery usually grab a handful of dust as a blessing and pray at the graves of the imams, actions rejected as inappropriate "innovations" by the puritanical Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. The official said such "infractions" always take place at al-Baqee and are dealt with quietly by asking the pilgrims to refrain from performing the rituals. But, the official added, in the most recent incident, there was a large crowd of people bent on provoking the worshipers and authorities at the cemetery. Asked if members of the religious police had filmed Shi'ite female pilgrims, the official said if any filming had taken place it would have been to take evidence of the infractions and not for voyeurism. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The official said nine of the Shi'ite visitors to the Medina cemetery have been arrested. He said the government is keen to find out the truth and the reasons for the escalation to ensure that such incidents do not happen again. He said the perpetrators will be held responsible. He did not elaborate. On Tuesday, the dispute erupted into two protests involving several hundred people in an eastern town, and Shi'ite leaders differed over whether demonstrations and shouting slogans would resolve the issue better than quiet dialogue with the government. Two witnesses who took part in Tuesday's protests in the poor Shi'ite town of Awwamiya told The Associated Press that demonstrators shouted anti-government slogans rarely heard in public. They also carried banners using similar language, such as: "Down with the Wahhabi domination" and "Down with the government," according to the witnesses. One of them said that as riot police filmed a protest in the town, youths hurled stones at a police outpost. He said police fired in the air to disperse the crowds. No casualties were reported. A prominent Shi'ite figure in the more affluent Shi'ite city of Qatif said such protests will not resolve the issue. He said there are high-level talks between members of the Shi'ite community and the government to put an end to the tension. "This is the best path," he told the AP. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern that his views against the protests could cause him trouble in his community.