Sect marks annual day of mourning in processions throughout Beirut
BEIRUT—Lebanese Shiites marked their annual day of mourning for Ashura on Wednesday, a massive showcase of power and defiance for the sect as it fights Sunni extremists on multiple fronts across the Middle East.
Members of the crowd said it was the biggest turnout they could recall for the annual procession, playing out against steadily escalating sectarian tensions across the region. Tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims gathered across Lebanon to commemorate the death of Husayn Ibn Ali, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and an early leader of the sect, whose death nearly 1,400 years ago solidified the deep cleavage that still divides Sunni and Shiite relations today.
The processions shut down Shiite areas across Lebanon and Beirut’s biggest suburb, about half the size of the capital. The thunderous thud of thousands of men beating their chests and chanting in unison echoed amid skyscrapers, while mourners clad in black sobbed.
But the day isn’t only for the devout. Some women donned full makeup, hot-pink lips, dyed and teased blond hair and tight, cleavage-revealing shirts. One man wore a shirt with a meme about drinking wine.
“When we feel threatened, we come together. This is the biggest Ashura ever and it will keep growing each year,” said Ilham Nasr, 49 years old, with her 11- year-old daughter, Jana. They waved Palestinian flags and the banner of Hezbollah, the Shiite political and militant group in Lebanon that sponsors Ashura commemorations in the southern suburb of Dahiyeh.
In Lebanon, as in much of the region, one’s sect defines identity regardless of one’s devoutness. And as the crowd gathered, public speakers talked about the conflicts Hezbollah or its allies are embroiled in across the region. In Yemen, Houthis, a branch of Shiite Islam, battle Saudi Arabia and in Syria, the Shiite-linked regime backed by Hezbollah battles Sunni jihadist groups.
In Lebanon, it is religious commemorations, not national holidays that draw out the crowds. With 18 officially recognized sects and government power split among them, Lebanon has more public holidays than any other nation, ample opportunity for sectarian shows of force.
Greek Orthodox Easter competes with the Catholic version of the holiday, while Shiite and Sunni clerics scour the sky to study the moon and declare their start of the holy month of Ramadan.
Even Lebanon’s biggest Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah, are deeply split over how to observe Ashura. In Ashura commemorations sponsored by Amal, small boys cut open their foreheads with razorblades while older men self-flagellate their backs with whips as they march through towns. Hezbollah banned the bloodletting long ago.
In 1990, when Lebanon emerged from a brutal 15-year civil war fought along sectarian lines, it was considered rude to ask questions that could be construed as an attempt to determine one’s religion, such as a last name or a hometown. But as sectarianism has soared across the region in recent years, priests and imams are reporting the largest crowds they can recall attending Easter Mass or Ashura commemorations.
When Pope Benedict XVI visited Beirut in 2012, the pressure within Christian families to attend his public Mass was formidable. The visit came a year into Syria’s sectarian-charged war and Christians in Lebanon worried their Syrian counterparts would go the way of Iraq’s: dead or fleeing abroad.
It was time for Christian Lebanese to come out and declare their presence and right to be in the Mideast, those who greeted the pope in Beirut’s streets said at the time. The church organized buses to ship nuns and citizens from across Lebanon, to attend the open air, seaside Mass in Beirut.
That stance was reflected in Ashura on Wednesday, as it is every year: “Disgrace is far from us!” worshipers chanted. Over the last week, supporters of Sunni extremist group Islamic State circulated online guides on how to attack Ashura processions. It was a threat that also hung over the pope’s visit. But those that attended Wednesday’s commemoration weren’t all devout Shiites seeking martyrdom, despite the regional stereotype of the sect.
Hassan al-Afiyeh, 22, an unemployed, commemorated his 18th Ashura this year. He said it was the largest he had ever seen.
Mr. Afiyeh said he is waiting for either a job at the airport through Hezbollah connections or to be called to fight for the group in Syria. But he has been waiting a long time, he said, after he got into a fight with his local recruiter—the imam for his neighborhood mosque.
“He found photos of women on my phone,” he replied. “There was a question of my honor.”