Afghanistan's minority Shia Muslims, who were persecuted under the former Taliban regime of Sunni Muslims, yesterday openly commemorated for the first time in six years an important day in the religious calendar of their branch of Islam -- the Tenth of Moharram, or Ashura. Many see it as yet another positive development in a country long blighted by religious and ethnic tensions. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky witnessed some of the celebrations and filed this report.
Kabul, 25 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Most of the world's Muslims belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. The second-largest group is the Shia or Shiite branch, the brand of Islam predominant in Iran, with substantial numbers of followers in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere.
The two branches have been at odds for centuries, often in violent conflict. Afghanistan's former Taliban government and its Al-Qaeda allies were Sunnis who preached hatred against the Shias, did their best to repress the Shia minority, and carried out atrocities against them.
They also prevented Shias from commemorating one of the most important days in the Shia calendar, called the Tenth of Moharram, or Ashura, which marks the killing of Hosein, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad in the 7th century and a man the Shias venerate as a martyr.
On 24 March, the Shias were allowed to commemorate the Tenth of Moharram. In the parts of the Afghan capital, Kabul, with large Shia populations, mosques were crowded. Thousands of people milled around inside and outside, chanting prayers and singing songs about Hosein's martyrdom.
The commemoration itself is a mixture of solemnity and religious fervor. Thousands of young men and boys, some as young as 10 and stripped to the waist, gathered inside Shia mosques or in the courtyards of mosques and, while chanting verses about Hosein, inflict pain upon themselves by fiercely beating their chests or flailing themselves with metal chains. The flagellation continues until their backs are bruised or, in some cases, blood is drawn. The actions are intended to recall the brutal way Hosein died at the hands of an Arab King called Yazid.
Several hundred people took part in the ceremony at the Hoseini-e-Umi Mosque in the Fatimiya area of Kabul.
The ceremony continued throughout the day, with the men and boys taking a rest every few hours from their self-flagellation. One of those present but not taking part, Dr. Ali Hasim, explained.
"They are celebrating the day on which the son of one of our prophets was martyred. It's voluntary for all the people, not just Shia. [But it's] special for Shia."
Although the day is also acknowledged by the majority Sunnis, it is not commemorated in such a reverent way, and the date is bound up with events that have led to a bitter separation between the Sunnis and the Shias.
Although the Taliban regime could not officially ban the self-flagellation or the Shia commemoration of the date, such celebrations were restricted. Many Shias stopped taking part in the event, fearing Taliban retribution, or performed the ceremonies secretly.
The Taliban never officially declared war on the Shias but did do everything in their power to repress them. In particular, the ethnic Hazaras, composed of Shias, whose home area borders Iran, suffered repression at the hands of the Taliban and saw many hundreds of their people murdered.
Shia women also take part in the commemorations but do not take part in the self-flagellation. They chant verses from the Islamic holy book, the Koran, and sing songs about Hosein's fate.
One woman called Shukria at the Takiakhana Mosque near the center of Kabul spoke about the Taliban's curbs on commemorating the day.
"During the last five years, we were severely restricted. We were allowed to celebrate this day but in a very curtailed manner. But now we are happy that this year, Islam is allowed to go forward, and we can celebrate freely. Shias and Sunnis are working together to celebrate this date."
Another woman, Omul Banin, said that last year most Shias in her area celebrated the event in secret because they did not want to expose themselves to possible Taliban wrath.
"Last year during Taliban rule, we could not celebrate Ashura freely, and so we celebrated in secret. We were all gathering in secret and commemorating this day."
Some Sunnis also attended the commemoration at the Shia mosque. One of them was Afghan Army Colonel Mohamed Nasim, who said he hopes the climate of tolerance in Kabul exhibited yesterday will prevail as Afghanistan's different ethnic and religious groups try to resolve the issues that have divided them for decades.
"All Muslims commemorate this day in some way, the killing of Hosein. This celebration has gone on for a long time before now. It's an old tradition. But during the Taliban era, these celebrations were being stifled and only allowed in a limited way. Now everyone can get on and practice their own religions freely."
The Tenth of Moharram was commemorated yesterday in all the parts of Afghanistan in which Shias live, and there were no reports of trouble.