Shiite Muslims in Iraq and Lebanon celebrate Ashura

BAGHDAD (AP) — Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon chanted, marched and beat their chests on Tuesday to celebrate Ashura, one of the most important days on the religious calendar to commemorate the death of the seventh-century Prophet Muhammad. The martyrdom of grandson Hussein.

Symbols of Shiite piety and repentance hang over major Iraqi cities, where Hussein is believed to have been killed in the Battle of Karbala, south of Baghdad, in 680 AD

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people gather in Karbala, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Baghdad, to celebrate the solemn holy day.

Shiites consider Hussein and his descendants the rightful heirs of the Prophet. His killing at the hands of a rival Muslim faction embodies the rift between Sunni and Shiite Islam and continues to shape the identity of the Islamic minority today.

Public ceremonies of the Ashura often heighten sectarian tensions in Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan, where Islam’s two main sects live.

Security forces are on high alert for any violence as Sunni extremist groups, considered Shia heretics, have seized the opportunity to launch attacks in the past few years.

In Iraq, powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has used emotionally charged religious occasions to galvanize support for his movement, deepening divisions among the country’s Shiites. Unable to form a government, Iraq plunged further into political chaos last week when thousands of Sadr’s supporters stormed and occupied the parliament building. They continued the sit-in outside parliament, keeping lawmakers from meeting and raising the specter of civil unrest.

In Sadr City, a Shiite-dominated suburb of Baghdad, a portrait of Sadr hangs on almost every door. Crowds of men and boys expressed extreme enthusiasm in Ashura’s masochistic ritual on Tuesday. They beat themselves on the head and chest in unison, and whipped themselves with chains until they bleed.

“We inherited this from our father and grandfather,” said participant Hamza Abdul-Jalil. “God forbid, we will continue down this path.”

In Lebanon, marches closed Shiite areas across the country and Beirut’s largest suburb.

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