Ashura: Why Holy Day Brings Fear for Afghan Shiites


Millions of Shiite Muslims in deeply religious Afghanistan are bracing for violence as they prepare to commemorate Ashura, one of the holiest days in the Islamic calendar.

Expectations that the Islamic State group will strike have alarmed Shiites, particularly in Kabul where IS militants have carried out devastating attacks in recent weeks.

Here are some key facts about the sacred day, which falls on Thursday. 

What is Ashura?One of the most important festivals for Shiite Muslims falls on the 10th day of Muharram, which is the mourning period for the seventh-century killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Ashura marks the murder of Hussein and his family in the year 680. His tragic end laid the foundation for the faith practised by the Shiite community.

For Shiites around the world, Ashura is a symbol of the struggle against oppression.

What happens on Ashura?There are around three million Shiites in overwhelmingly Sunni Afghanistan and the majority belong to the Hazara ethnic group.

On the Ashura day Shiites across the country gather at mosques and shrines for ceremonial mourning that involves beating their chests, slapping their faces and hitting their backs with chains until they bleed to commemorate the violent deaths of Hussein and his family.

The faithful also drive in convoys through the streets carrying colourful flags and playing songs dedicated to Hussein.

Why are Shiites under attack? The Taliban, who follow the Sunni branch of Islam, have been accused of committing human rights violations against the Shiites during their 1996-2001 rule in Afghanistan.  

The emergence of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan in recent years has seen attacks against the minority group escalate.

Sunni IS jihadists consider Shiites apostates and have launched numerous assaults on their mosques and other locations, and massacred hundreds of people. 

Ashura has become a major target for IS. In 2016, an IS-claimed attack on a Kabul shrine killed at least 18 people gathering to mark the festival.

Last year, six people were killed when a suicide bomber posing as a shepherd blew himself up near a mosque in Kabul as Shiites prepared to mark Ashura.

In the most recent major attack, a double bombing at a wrestling club in a Shiite neighbourhood of Kabul this month killed at least 26 people and wounded 91.

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