Although Saudi authorities have accused al-Qaeda militants for a recent attack against a group of Shia Muslims participating in a ceremony marking the martyrdom anniversary of Imam Hussein (PBUH) in Eastern Province, but people say culture of sectarianism paved the way for the shooting.
Saudi Shiite mourners attend on November 7, 2014, the funeral of 8 victims killed earlier this week by masked gunmen in the town of Al-Dalwa in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Seven of the dead were killed when gunmen opened fire at a crowd, as Shiites commemorated Ashura, one of their holiest occasions.
An eighth from a neighboring village was killed by the assailants as they robbed his car to use in the attack, residents and local press said.
Thousands of mourners joined Friday the funeral of eight people killed during an unprecedented rampage against minority Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.
Mourners poured into Al-Dalwa from across the Sunni-dominated kingdom, a witness told AFP, saying that some also came from neighboring Bahrain.
“Sunnis and Shiites, we are brothers! We shall not abandon our homeland,” chanted mourners, according to footage aired online, amid calls to reject sectarianism.
Posters of the deceased Sunni policemen were carried in the funeral. Grief among the villagers was mixed with anger about a culture of sectarianism they say paved the way for the shooting. With civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority feels increasingly vulnerable.
The Saudi government has done little to stem a corresponding upsurge of provocative language there, cracking down on only extreme examples and emphasizing a shared national identity irrespective of sect.
“For sure criticism of Shi’ites by clerics and religious television stations like Vesal creates the atmosphere where this can happen. In our own schools the teachers tell our children that we are not Muslims,” said a witness of the shooting who did not want to be named for fear of repercussions.
Monday’s attack took place in al-Dalwah, located in Eastern Province’s al-Ahsa, an oasis that is home to around half the kingdom’s Shi’a minority. It prompted a police manhunt that has so far led to 20 arrests and the deaths of three suspects and two policemen in a gunfight.
Top Sunni clerics have condemned the attack, which officials have blamed on al Qaeda, and Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef visited Eastern Province to offer condolences to bereaved relatives of the victims.
Those actions have given comfort to the villagers. But some of them believe more needs to be done to stop hostility towards members of their sect.
Saudi Arabia has closed down the offices of a religious television channel accused of fomenting sectarian tension, after al-Dalwah attack. Wesal TV has long been accused of broadcasting programmes against Shiite Muslims, a minority that lives in the eastern and southwestern areas of mainly Sunni Muslim audi Arabia.
“I have ordered the offices of Wesal channel in Riyadh closed and to ban any broadcast by it in the kingdom,” Saudi Information Minister Abdulaziz Khoja said on his Twitter account. “This is essentially not a Saudi channel,” he added in a message in Arabic on Tuesday evening.
The royal court later said in a statement carried by state news agency SPA on Wednesday that Khoja had been relieved of his post at his request and replaced by the minister for the haj pilgrimage.
It’s not clear any connection between Khoja’s departure and the closure of the television offices.
“HARASSED AND INSULTED”
Saudi Arabia follows the strict Wahhabi Sunni School, which is closely tied to the ruling Al Saud dynasty, and some of its senior clerics have taught that Shiism is heretical.
Privately owned religious television stations broadcast rhetoric against Shiites and influential clerics are allowed to attack the shiires on Twitter.
Wesal Wahhabi television station that employed a cleric who was detained last month for Tweets glorifying the killing of Shiites in Yemen – but many of them wonder why the station was not closed down earlier.
Last month, the Twitter account of one of Wesal’s broadcasters, Khaled al-Ghamdi, was suspended for allegedly calling on followers to celebrate the death of Yemeni Shi’ite members of the Houthi group in a suicide bombing that had killed 47 people in Sanaa.
“We need the government to change the school books that say Shiites are bad. We need them to do more against the people on Twitter who hate Shiites and encourage people to kill them,” said a man standing outside Dalwah’s Shiite prayer hall, the Hosseiniya.
“We’re not asking for them to build us places of worship, or to let us go out onto the streets to protest. We just don’t want to be harassed and insulted by extremists,” he added.
For the people of Dalwah, a small village clinging to the foot of the rocky outcrop of Jebel Qara and wedged between palm-green date farms, their horror at the attack was particularly acute because it targeted their Ashoura commemorations.
Ashoura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram, is observed by Shiites as a day of mourning for Imam Hossein, their third Imam and the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
These annual mourning rituals unite Shiites across the Middle East but also anger Sunnis who follow Wahhabism, who see the ostentatious displays of grief as an insult to their own early leaders.
As a result it is only in the Qatif district of Eastern province, where the majority of inhabitants are Shi’a that they are permitted to publicly observe these rituals. In al-Ahsa, where only half the population belongs to the sect, they are forbidden from holding processions or displaying mourning lags.
When the shooting started in al-Dalwah village, Mohammed al-Musharaf turned to shield his one-year-old baby Bassem, shouting don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” He saved his son, but died right there on the street, Musharaf’s brother said.
Mustafa al-Musharaf says: “I stood looking at him (the gunman). He approached and opened fire, and I saw a person who fell here. He (the gunman) walked closer and saw me, I ran away, he saw me and started shooting towards me, the shots hit the air conditioner and the window”
The grief in the small village, where most people are related to each other, was obvious. a group of men and boys standing outside the bullet-spattered Hosseiniya, no one wanted to give their names, worried about reprisals.
“I have spoken enough. I have no words,” said an elderly man in a white robe, whose son was killed in the shooting. A younger man said he had been standing outside the Hosseiniya when the three militants advanced down the street towards him after leaving their car under the trees.
“They were shooting at me and I ran with my head down and escaped. They weren’t saying anything as they were shooting but they were laughing,” he said.
Taleb al-Mutawa, a relative of some of the victims, organizied Friday’s funeral which many thousands of people attended.
“Everybody has condemned what happened… People from the government side, from the Chamber of Commerce and from big Sunni families have said they want to participate,” he added.
The Senior Council of Scholars, the top Saudi religious body, condemned the attack as a “a heinous crime whose perpetrators deserve the harshest religious penalties.” That message was echoed by the Grand Mufti in a television address, saying the attack was intended “to open the door to sectarian conflict so that we kill and destroy each other.”
Shiites say they face discrimination in seeking educational opportunities or government employment in the majority Sunni state and that they are referred to disparagingly in text books and by some officials and state-funded clerics.
They also complain of curbs on setting up places of worship and marking Shiite holidays, and say Qatif and al-Ahsa receive less state funding than Sunni communities of equivalent size.