FREEDOM OF RELIGION: Palestinian Shia Muslims Persecuted by Saudi Wahabi Influence

(AP)  GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Masked Hamas police beat and detained members of the Gaza Strip's tiny Shiite community during a religious commemoration last week, a follower and local rights groups said Tuesday, accusing their Islamist rulers of religious intolerance.

It was the first claim of harassment by a group of Shiite worshippers against the territory's mainstream rulers, who are Sunni Muslims. Hamas officials, who have close ties with Shiite Iran, denied the allegations.

A man who described himself as a Shiite said police burst into a house where followers were marking Arbaeen, commemorating the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. The man said about 15 worshippers were beaten and detained.



He declined to be identified, fearing further harassment. But some of the men filed complaints to the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights and the rights group Mezan, which both sharply condemned Hamas over the attack.

Mezan said in a statement that during Saturday evening's incident in the town of Beit Lahia, police smashed up the apartment, broke the bones of seven of the men, detained some of them at a police station and beat them again before sending them to a military hospital for treatment.

"The attack is a violation of the freedom ... to practice one's faith," said Mezan official Samir Zakout.

Interior Ministry spokesman Ihab Ghussein said Tuesday that police stormed the apartment of a group of "outlaws" who were planning "criminal acts." He said he was unaware of the presence of any Shiites in Gaza. He said his offices would look into right groups' allegations that the men were beaten.

There are no official statistics on the number of Gaza's Shiites. They are believed to number several dozen — a minuscule minority among a population of 1.6 million people who are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, including the territory's Islamist militant Hamas rulers.

In many parts of the Middle East, Shiites and Sunnis have had strained relations due to deep theological differences that date back centuries. These differences have boiled over into violence over the years in places like Iraq and Pakistan.

Despite such strains, the attack in Gaza seemed surprising, given Hamas' traditionally warm ties with Iran. The fundamentalist Shiite government in Iran has given hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as military training and other backing, to Hamas.

In a separate incident, Mezan said Tuesday that a prominent rights activist who has criticized Palestinian leaders and militants was stabbed and slightly wounded by unknown assailants.

The attack on Mahmoud Abu Rahma last Friday came after he published an essay that criticized Palestinian leaders and militant groups for threatening, silencing and even harming critics.

"It is safe to assume that neither the government nor the resistance is willing to step in to protect people who dare to criticize them," he wrote.

Zakout said soon after the essay was published, Abu Rahma received threats by e-mail and text message. Hamas police condemned the attack and said they were searching for the assailants.

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Additional reporting by Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem. Follow Diaa Hadid on www.twitter.com/diaahadid

On the Net: Abu Rahma's essay can be seen at www.maannews.net/eng



Shia Group 'Attacked by Police' in Gaza

A group of Shiite worshipers say masked police violently raided a religious service in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday, prompting furious denials by the Hamas-dominated government in the territory.


Shia Group
(Ahlul Bayt News Agency) - Around 20 followers of the Shia Islam were performing a ceremony for Arbaeen, the commemoration of the Martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad's grandson Imam Hussein (a.s), when masked police stormed the private home in Beit Lahiya, they told Palestinian human rights groups.
Security officers beat the worshipers with clubs, and took them for interrogation at a police station where they were further assaulted, they told the Gaza-headquartered Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
Several sustained fractures and bruises from the beating and were taken to Balsam and Kamal Odwan hospitals, PCHR said.
The Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights said that upon leaving hospital, they were handed notifications to go to the interior security headquarters in northern Gaza.
A Shiite man, who asked to be referred to as M. M., told Ma'an on Sunday "to be assaulted by security forces is outrageous because we are not against the law, we respect it."
"These rites concern freedom of religion ... we are Muslims like all the people in Gaza."
The Shia will continue exercising their religious rites, which they are proud of, he said.
Another Shiite man, using the name Abu Zeinab, said security forces dispersed the religious ceremony after alleging it did not have the proper license, but denied the group were assaulted.
On Monday, the Gaza interior ministry published a press statement denying the account relayed by human rights groups.
"Police tracked an illegal group with corrupted views that were planning to commit crimes," the ministry said in its version of the Saturday night raid.
The ministry also said Palestine is a Sunni country where Shiism does not exist.
"We respect all the doctrines around the world, especially the Shiite school, and we don’t intervene in what they believe and we don’t want them to intervene in our beliefs as well," the statement said.
While vowing to study allegations of human rights abuse, the interior ministry warned human rights groups to consult official sources and not believe just any account of events.
The ministry also called on the media to work for positive national goals.
PCHR urged the Gaza government to open an investigation into "the use of excessive force by the security officers ... and to bring the perpetrators to justice."
The raid broke Palestinian laws on freedom of belief and expression, and a prohibition on raiding private homes without a judicial order, Al Mezan said.
Meanwhile, M. M. told Ma'an that Shiites would "complain about Hamas to Iran, which supports the movement in Gaza."
While vowing to study allegations of human rights abuse, the interior ministry warned human rights groups to consult official sources and not believe just any account of events.
The ministry also called on the media to work for positive national goals.
PCHR urged the Gaza government to open an investigation into "the use of excessive force by the security officers ... and to bring the perpetrators to justice."
The raid broke Palestinian laws on freedom of belief and expression, and a prohibition on raiding private homes without a judicial order, Al Mezan said.
Meanwhile, M. M. told Ma'an that Shiites would "complain about Hamas to Iran, which supports the movement in Gaza."
Abu Zeinab complained that Iran did not offer sufficient support for Shiites in Gaza. While the Shia are harassed by Hamas, they faced worse suppression under Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority rule prior to the 2007 split between the governments, he added.
Hamas premier in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh is due to visit Iran in early February. The Sunni group is believed to receive considerable support from the Shia power.
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