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Muslim Persecution of Christians: June, 2013

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The degradation of Christian women living in the Islamic world continued in the month of June.

In Syria, after the al-Qaeda linked rebel group conquered Qusair, a city of the governate of Homs, 15-year-old Mariam was kidnapped, repeatedly gang raped according to a fatwa legitimizing the rape of non-Sunni women by any Muslim waging jihad against Syria’s government, and then executed.

According to Agenzia Fides, “The commander of the battalion ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’ in Qusair took Mariam, married and raped her. Then he repudiated her. The next day the young woman was forced to marry another Islamic militant. He also raped her and then repudiated her. The same trend was repeated for 15 days, and Mariam was raped by 15 different men. This psychologically destabilized her and made her insane. Mariam became mentally unstable and was eventually killed.”

In Pakistan, Muslim men stormed the home of three Christian women, beat them, stripped them naked and tortured them, and then paraded them in the nude in a village in the Kasur district. Days earlier, it seems the goats of the Christian family had accidentally trespassed onto Muslim land; Muslims sought to make an example of the Christian family, who, as third-class citizens, must know their place at all times.

The rest of June’s roundup of Muslim persecution of Christians around the world includes (but is not limited to) the following accounts, listed by theme and country in alphabetical order, not according to severity:

Attacks on Christian Worship: Churches and Monasteries

Iraq: During the middle of the night, armed men attacked St. Mary’s Assyrian Catholic Church in Baghdad; they wounded two Christian guards, one seriously. Later the same day, bombs were set off at two Christian-owned businesses, both near the church; they killed one Christian shop owner, a parishioner at St. Mary’s. Since the U.S. “liberation” of Iraq in 2003, 73 churches have been attacked or bombed, and more than half of the country’s Christian population has either fled or been killed.

Kenya: Motorbike assailants hurled an explosive device into the Earthquake Miracle Ministries Church in Mrima village church compound during the Sunday of June 9, injuring 15 people, including one pastor who had both his legs broken, another pastor who sustained serious injuries, and a 10-year-old child. Said another church leader, “The Christians living around the scene of the incident are still in shock and are wondering as to the mission behind the attack, while several pastors looked demoralized. But others said prayers will help them stand strong in sharing the Christian faith.” Islamic extremists from Somalia’s jihadi organization Al Shabaab are suspected of this and other attacks on Christians in the coastal areas of Kenya.

Nigeria: Four churches were burned in an attack committed by members of the jihadi group Boko Haram in Borno State in the Muslim-majority north of the country. According to Agenzia Fides, “A group of armed men with improvised explosive devices and petrol bombs attacked the Hwa’a, Kunde, Gathahure and Gjigga communities on Gwoza Hills, burning the 4 churches, raiding and looting cattle and grain reserves belonging to the population.” Discussing the ongoing terrorism Christians in the north are exposed to, one pastor lamented, “There are Christian villages that have been completely wiped out by these Muslim terrorists… Christian fellowship activities and evangelism outreaches are no longer possible…. For a number of years, the attacks on Christians in these three local government areas have caused the displacement of thousands of Christians there. There is a very lamentable problem, as we are no longer able to worship God as Christians in this part of Nigeria.”

Syria: An Islamic jihadi rebel wearing a suicide belt reportedly detonated himself outside the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in an old Christian quarter in Damascus; the attack left four people dead and several injured. Rebel sources confirmed the attack but said it was caused by a mortar bomb. Around the same time, jihadi rebels massacred the Christian village of al-Duwair near Homs, while destroying its churches. Also, according to Agenzia Fides, a Belgian Catholic priest, Fr. Daniel Maes, 74, of the religious Order of “Canons Regular Premonstratensian,” was last reported as being “in the sights of jihadi groups who intend to eliminate him and invade the monastery of San James mutilated in Qara,” which dates back to the fifth century. Earlier the priest had denounced the “ethnic cleansing” carried out on Christians in Qusair, after the town was taken by the rebels and jihadi groups: “The surrounding Christian villages were destroyed and all the faithful who were caught were killed, according to a logic of sectarian hatred… For decades, Christians and Muslims lived in peace in Syria. If criminal gangs can roam and terrorize civilians, is this not against international laws? Who will protect the innocent and ensure the future of this country? … Young people are disappointed, because foreign powers dictate their agenda. Moderate Muslims are worried, because Salafists and fundamentalists want to impose a totalitarian dictatorship of religious nature. The citizens are terrified because they are innocent victims of armed gangs.”

Attacks on Christian Freedom: Apostasy, Blasphemy, Proselytism

Indonesia: The Indonesian Ulema Council in Tegal issued a fatwa against Catholic schools, saying they are “forbidden” and “morally unsound” for young Muslim students, despite its pupils, both Muslim and Christian, routinely scoring higher than in other schools. “For the schools,” reported Asia News, “the fatwa is a great blow, coming in the wake of attacks from Muslim extremists and local governments that included threats of closure that were however eventually dropped… [M]any Muslim families have come to the defence of the two schools, claiming their right to a quality education. In fact, many schools run by nuns, priests and lay Catholics offer such excellence in education that they are sought after by non-Christians.” Earlier the influential Indonesian Ulema Council lashed out during flag-raising “because Mohammed never did it;” before that announcement, the Islamic clerics “launched anathemas against Facebook for its ‘amoral’ nature, as well as yoga, smoking and voting rights, in particular for women.”

Pakistan: A 16-year-old boy who converted to Christianity from Islam a year ago, and began attending Bible lessons in a Protestant community, was abducted in Peshawar. Local sources said he was kidnapped by Taliban-linked Islamic militants “and his fate may already be marked, as he is considered ‘guilty of apostasy,'” the penalty of which is death. As one Pakistani pastor explained: “If a young Muslim converts to Christianity in Pakistan, he is forced to live in hiding. Every Muslim might feel compelled to kill him. The change of religion is not punished by the civil law, it is punishable by Islamic law. For this reason cases of Muslim conversion to Christianity are very rare and some convert in secret.”

Somalia: Islamic terrorists from Al Shabaab (“The Youth”) publicly executed a 28-year-old man after determining that he had in fact become a Christian. Aiming at his head, he was shot “to death.” As Morning Star News explains, “Somalis are considered Muslim by birth, and apostasy, or leaving Islam, is punishable by death.” After the execution, the man’s parents, widow and son fled the region. The Al-Qaeda linked Al Shabaab has vowed to cleanse Somalia of all Christian presence, and its members have murdered dozens of Muslim converts to Christianity.

Uzbekistan: Four police officers raided the home of a 76-year-old Christian woman, ill with Parkinson’s disease. After removing her from her bed and without producing a search warrant, they “turned everything in the home upside down,” and confiscated her Bible and other Christian materials. Since then, the woman has been subjected to innumerable legal proceedings. Most recently, she was convicted of “Illegal production, storage, or import into Uzbekistan with a purpose to distribute or distribution of religious materials by physical persons.” The judge ordered that her Bible, 14 Christian books, six DVDs and a video be destroyed. She was told by court officials, “This is a Muslim country and all of your Christian books including the Bible are outlawed.” Because these proceedings have caused her extreme anxiety, after one hearing an ambulance was called for her.

Dhimmitude: A Climate of Hate and Contempt

Bangladesh: A mob of some “60 extremists” raided a predominantly Christian village. According to the Barnabas Aid group, “they plundered the residents’ livestock and other possessions and threatened to return to burn down homes. The attackers then moved on to nearby Bolakipur and targeted a Christian seminary. Battering down the doors, they forced their way into the building and severely beat the rector and a number of students. The previous day, two church leaders from Tumilia were beaten and robbed.”

Egypt: “Unknown persons” kidnapped a 7-year-old Christian girl in Dakhaleya Province in northern Egypt. The girl, Jessica Nadi Gabriel, was attending a wedding ceremony with her family when she was seized and torn away. Her father later revealed that the 7-year-old girl’s abductors called him demanding a ransom of 650,000 Egyptian Pounds (nearly $100,000 USD). Two weeks earlier, a 6-year-old Coptic boy who was kidnapped and held for ransom, was still killed and discarded in the sewer—even after his family paid the Muslim kidnapper the demanded ransom. Also, a Coptic Christian man named Milad, living in Tanta, said that “unknown persons” invited him and his family to renounce Christianity and submit to Islam and convert. According to widely-read Egyptian newspaper, Youm7, “They also snatched at the crucifix he was wearing around his neck, and threatened to kidnap his children and wife if he refused to convert to Islam.” As they wore the trademark white robes and long beards, the man identified them as members of the Salafi movement in Egypt. Meanwhile, U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson was urging the Coptic pope to forbid the Copts from protesting against Muslim Brotherhood rule — even though they, as Christians, would suffer under it most — while Al Azhar, the world’s oldest Islamic university, based in Cairo, called on new Catholic Pope, Francis I, to declare that “Islam is a peaceful religion.”

Iran: According to a June 19 Morning Star News report, “Six more Christians were sentenced for practicing their faith last week, while Iran’s presidential election of a moderate politician was not expected to soften the regime’s persecution of religious minorities.” The same six Christians had been arrested earlier in February 2012, when police raided their house-church meeting. Officials rejected their appeal for release on bail; they are being held in Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, which houses hardened criminals and often lacks heating or health facilities, and where officials routinely deny medical treatment to prisoners.

Pakistan: Three months after a mob of 3,000 Muslims attacked a Christian neighborhood in Lahore, burning down two churches and 160 Christian homes, few of the perpetrators are in prison. Hundreds of those detained immediately after the incident were released; of the 83 who were arrested, 31 have been released on bail. “Most of the people who were stopped after the attack were declared innocent by the police and immediately released, for corruption or political pressure,” said a Christian lawyer. Meanwhile, the Christian whose arrest on blasphemy charges was the occasion for the rampage has gone on trial, even as he insists he never insulted Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Palestinian Authority: Five schools in Gaza—two Catholic and three Christian—face closure if the Hamas government follows through on an order forbidding co-educational institutions. According to Fr. Faysal Hijazin: “This will be a big problem. We hope they will not go through with it, but if they do, we will be in big trouble. We don’t have the space and we don’t have the money to divide our schools.” In addition to finding additional space, he said, the schools face having to hire more teachers. Under Islamic law, men and women teachers would not be allowed to teach classes to members of the opposite sex older than the age of 10. “It is a concern that in education things are getting more conservative,” said the priest. “It reflects the whole society. This is of concern to both Christians and moderate Muslims. It is not easy to be there.”

Tanzania: Two Christian pastors were attacked by Muslims. On the night of Sunday, June 2, a Muslim mob broke into the home of Robert Ngai, the pastor of the Evangelical Assemblies of God Church in northeastern Tanzania, and attacked him with machetes. The pastor received serious cuts on his hands and arms when he raised them to protect his head from the blows; when last heard of, he was in the intensive care unit. Two nights earlier, the home of Daudi Nzumbi, Pastor of the Free Pentecostal Church of Tanzania congregation in Geita, also came under attack. However, the attackers fled after they were confronted by Pastor Nzumbi’s large, barking dogs. When Nzumbi called police, the officer in charge told him, “I cannot protect every pastor!”

About this Series

Because the persecution of Christians in the Islamic world is on its way to reaching pandemic proportions, “Muslim Persecution of Christians” was developed to collate some—by no means all—of the instances of persecution that surface each month. It serves two purposes:

1) To document that which the mainstream media does not: the habitual, if not chronic, Muslim persecution of Christians.

2) To show that such persecution is not “random,” but systematic and interrelated—that it is rooted in a worldview inspired by Sharia.

Accordingly, whatever the anecdote of persecution, it typically fits under a specific theme, including hatred for churches and other Christian symbols; sexual abuse of Christian women; forced conversions to Islam; apostasy and blasphemy laws that criminalize and punish with death those who “offend” Islam; theft and plunder in lieu of jizya (financial tribute expected from non-Muslims); overall expectations for Christians to behave like dhimmis, or second-class, “tolerated” citizens; and simple violence and murder. Sometimes it is a combination.

Because these accounts of persecution span different ethnicities, languages, and locales—from Morocco in the West, to India in the East, and throughout the West wherever there are Muslims—it should be clear that one thing alone binds them: Islam—whether the strict application of Islamic Sharia law, or the supremacist culture born of it.

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Middle East

The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan

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As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation operations.

China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.

Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near silent treatment is quite intriguing.

As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists, they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh. During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.

Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.

However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their “partners” in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.

In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia’s overall foreign policy began to undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach, Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.

With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main energy on the path of “peaceful nation-building”. This sudden reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.

In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point of breaking up with Riyadh.

Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan changes again.

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Gulf security: It’s not all bad news

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Gulf states are in a pickle.

They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a more-than-a-century-old pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.

The shaky pillar is the Gulf monarchies’ reliance on a powerful external ally that, in the words of Middle East scholar Roby C. Barrett, “shares the strategic, if not dynastic, interests of the Arab States.” The ally was Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century and the United States since then.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognised Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suited them.”

Going forward question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like they are not all bad news from the perspective of the region’s autocratic regimes.

The contours coupled with the uncertainty, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to integrate their defence strategies, a realisation that neither China nor Russia would step into the United States’ shoes, and a need to attract foreign investment to diversify their energy-dependent economies, is driving efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.

Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Mr Blinken tweeted.

The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security, in a guarded reference to Iran.

From the Gulf’s perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is reconfiguring its military presence in the Middle East with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others, but is not about to pull out lock, stock and barrel.

Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’s strategic interest in a counterterrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an ’over the horizon’ approach for which the Middle East remains crucial.

Moreover, domestic US politics mitigate towards a continued, if perhaps reduced, military presence even if Americans are tired of foreign military adventures, despite the emergence of a Biden doctrine that de-emphasises military engagement. Moreover, the Washington foreign policy elite’s focus is now on Asia rather than the Middle East.

Various powerful lobbies and interest groups, including Jews, Israelis, Gulf states, Evangelists, and the oil and defence industries retain a stake in a continued US presence in the region. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that the number of white Evangelicals had increased from 25 per cent of the US population in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2020.

Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, from which former President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018, and the risk of a major military conflagration makes a full-fledged US military withdrawal unlikely any time soon. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.

That’s further good news for Gulf regimes against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasising respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE.

Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.

The big-ticket items with proper maintenance and training would allow Gulf states to support US regional operations as the UAE and Qatar did in 2011 in Libya, and, the UAE in Somalia and Afghanistan as part of peacekeeping missions.

In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.

“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” the experts said in a statement in April.

There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement that stroke with thinking in the progressive wing of Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party is taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.

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Reducing Middle East tensions potentially lessens sectarianism and opens doors for women

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Two separate developments involving improved relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and women’s sporting rights demonstrate major shifts in how rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world and competition to define Islam in the 21st century is playing out in a world in which Middle Eastern states can no longer depend on the United States coming to their defence.

The developments fit into a regional effort by conservative, status quo states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and proponents of different forms of political Islam, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar; to manage rather than resolve their differences in a bid to ensure that they do not spin out of control. The efforts have had the greatest success with the lifting in January of a 3.5-year-long Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The reconciliation moves also signal the pressure on Middle Eastern players in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to change perceptions of the region as being wracked by civil wars, sectarian tensions, extremism, jihadism, and autocracy. Altering that perception is key to the successful implementation of plans to diversify oil and gas export dependent economies in the Gulf, develop resource-poor countries in the region, tackle an economic crisis in Turkey, and enable Iran to cope with crippling US sanctions.

Finally, these developments are also the harbinger of the next phase in the competition for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. In a break with the past decade, lofty declarations extolling Islam’s embrace of tolerance, pluralism and respect for others’ rights that are not followed up by deeds no longer cut ice. Similarly, proponents of socially conservative expressions of political Islam need to be seen as adopting degrees of moderation that so far have been the preserve of their rivals who prefer the geopolitical status quo ante.

That next phase of the battle is being shaped not only by doubts among US allies in the Middle East about the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor, reinforced by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also being informed by a realisation that neither China nor Russia can (or will) attempt to replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf.

The battles’ shifting playing field is further being determined by setbacks suffered by political Islam starting with the 2013 military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president and brutally decimated the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, political Islamists suffered a stunning electoral defeat in Morocco and witnessed the autocratic takeover of power in Tunisia by President Kais Saied.

A just published survey of Tunisian public opinion showed 45 percent of those polled blaming Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahada party, for the country’s crisis and 66 percent saying they had no confidence in the party.

The Middle East’s rivalries and shifting sands lend added significance to a planned visit in the coming weeks to Najaf, an Iraqi citadel of Shiite Muslim learning and home of 91-year-old Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, by Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s foremost historic educational institution.

The visit takes place against the backdrop of Iraqi-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major centres of Islam’s two main strands, that are aimed at dialling down tensions between them that reverberate throughout the Muslim world. The talks are likely to help the two regional powers manage rather than resolve their differences.

The rivalry was long marked by Saudi-inspired, religiously-cloaked anti-Shiite rhetoric and violence in a limited number of cases and Iranian concerns about the country’s Sunni minority and its opting for a strategy centred on Shiite Muslim proxies in third countries and support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Implicit in Saudi and Iranian sectarianism was the perception of Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries, and Sunnis in Iran and Iraq after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, as fifth wheels of the other.

Imam El-Tayeb’s visit, a signal of improvement in long-strained Egyptian-Iraqi relations, as well as a possible later meeting between the Sunni cleric, a Shiite cleric other than Ayatollah Al-Sistani who is too old and fragile to travel, and Pope Francis, are intended to put sectarianism on the backburner. Ayatollah Al-Sistani met with the pope during his visit to Iraq in March.

The visit takes on added significance in the wake of this week’s suicide bombing of a Hazara Shiite mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 50 people and wounded 100 others. The South Asian affiliate of the Islamic State, Islamic State-Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst since the Taliban came to power in August. It was likely designed to fuel tension between the Sunni Muslim group and the Hazara who account for 20 percent of the Afghan population.

Imam El-Tayeb’s travel to Najaf is likely to be followed by a visit by Mohamed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Saudi-dominated Muslim World League. The League was long a prime vehicle for the propagation of anti-Shiite Saudi ultra-conservatism. Since coming to office, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recast the League as a tool to project his vaguely defined notion of a state-controlled ‘moderate’ Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic.

In a similar vein, hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took many by surprise by allowing women into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to attend this month’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and South Korea. Iran is the only country to ban women from attending men’s sporting events. It was unclear whether the move was a one-off measure or signalled a loosening or lifting of the ban.

Mr Raisi was believed to see it as a way to rally domestic support and improve the Islamic republic’s image as much in China and Russia as in the West. No doubt, Mr. Raisi will have noted that China and Russia have joined the United States, Europe, and others in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to recognize women’s rights.

To be sure, women in Iran enjoy education rights and populate universities. They can occupy senior positions in business and government even if Iran remains a patriarchal society. However, the ban on women in stadia, coupled with the chador, the head to foot covering of women, has come to dominate the perception of Iran’s gender policies.

Allowing women to attend the World Cup qualifier suggests a degree of flexibility on Mr. Raisi’s part. During his presidential campaign Mr. Raisi argued that granting women access to stadiums would not solve their problems.

It also demonstrates that the government, with hardliners in control of all branches, can shave off sharp edges of its Islamic rule far easier than reformists like Mr. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, were able to do.

The question is whether that is Mr. Raisi’s intention. Mr. Raisi may be testing the waters with this month’ soccer match, only time will tell.

It may be too big a leap in the immediate future but, like Imam El-Tayeb’s visit to Najaf, it indicates that the dialling down of regional tensions puts a greater premium on soft power which in turn builds up pressure for less harsh expressions of religion.

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