Shiites in Jordan maintained low profile while marking Ashura observance

[KARAK] Sectarian tensions in Syria have tainted this year’s marking of the Ashura day of mourning among Shiites in Jordan, as conservative tribes in the south of the kingdom threatened to demolish a Shiite Husaynya, a place of worship currently under construction.

When Shiite Muslims marked Ashura on November 24, visitors to their shrines managed to conduct the regular prayer service, but did not dare to carry out rituals common in its observance, such as hitting themselves with chains or bars. Worshipers often beat their chests, lash themselves with metal chains and even cut their heads with swords in remorse of their inability to save the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Imam Hussein, who was killed by the armies of the Caliph Yazid during the battle of Karbala in 680 A.D.

Solemn prayers echoed around mosques in Al-Mazar near the southern city of Karak. The town, some 120 kilometers (72 miles) south of the capital Amman, is home to centuries-old tombs revered by Shiites that attract visitors from around the kingdom, Iraq and Lebanon.

“We only fasted for two days, prayed and called for forgiveness over the killing of the Imam,” Kathem Jabar, an Iraqi businessman who was visiting the tomb of Hussein’s companion, Ja’far bin Abi Talib in Al-Mazar, told The Media Line.

While a small number of Shiite Muslims were able to show up at the shrines, the majority marked the occasion in at home. Shiites in Jordan admit that the war in Syria has cast a gloomy shadow over the annual rituals. “People associate Shiites with [Syrian President Bashar] Al-Assad’s killing machine,” said Um Saber, a Lebanese Shiite who is married to a Jordanian. The mother of five said she was unable to travel south to mark the holy occasion for fear of harassment. “In the past, when Hizbullah used to bring nightmares to Israel through its rockets, we openly said we are Shiites. Now, we hide our identity,” she said from her house in eastern Amman.

Jordan, the majority of whose population is Sunni Muslim, sympathizes with the revolution to topple Al-Assad, who is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shia. The kingdom’s pro-Western monarch has been warning against the so-called “Shia Crescent” and has called on Assad to relinquish his powers.

Iran this week charged that Jordan bars Iranians, who are majority Shiites, from visiting shrines in southern part of the country. But Jordians insist the kingdom is open to all Shiites, including Iranians.

Earlier this month, residents of Al-Mazar called on the government to take action when they discovered that a Husaynya, where Shiites perform rituals, was being built in the town. An eyewitness, Al-Mazar resident Amer Taranweh, told The Media Line that he had noticed Shiites attending a building that was under construction and said that followers, who are also Jordanians, have refused community residents’ demand that construction be halted. They complained to officials of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and requested an investigation. The local residents said they will give the government – which said it was not aware of the construction of a Husaynya – to react, but if there is no action taken, the community will take the matter into their own hands.

Tarawneh, a Sunni Muslim, said, “We will not allow a symbol of Shia in our territories, at whatever cost.”

Relations between Shiites and Sunnis soured to an all-time low after the execution of Saddam Hussein. Tribes in the Sunni-dominated town blame Shiites, and particularly Iran, for executing the former Iraqi dictator, who is seen as a national hero among ordinary Jordanians. Town officials have decided to rename the main street leading to the Shiite shrines “Martyr Saddam Hussein Street.”

One Al-Mazar Sunni, who gave his name only as Ahmed, said the tension between the local residents is political, noting that Sunnis and Shiites have lived together in this part of the country for hundreds of years.

Meanwhile, Ali, a Jordanian Shiite activist, said that Lebanon-based Hizbullah head Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s position and Iran’s support of Assad’s forces have not helped their cause. He said the future looks bleak for Shiites in Jordan, and he worries that the war in Syria will not allow the tensions to heal.

“With the killings and suffering in Syria, we will not be able to even visit Shiite shrines soon,” he told The Media Line.