Saudi cleric calls for end to anti-Shia actions


Sheik Hassan al-Saffar’s posted the appeal on his Web site Monday, following reports of several incidents of confrontations between Shias and riot police at the al-Baqee Cemetery in Medina, Islam’s second-holiest city.

The confrontations aggravate the friction between the overwhelmingly Sunni population and the Shias, who say they make up 10-15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s 22 million people.

Saudi Arabia follows the severe Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam that considers Shias infidels. Shias routinely complain of discrimination, including being banned from joining the religious police.

Shia witnesses said the first clash took place Friday evening after members of the religious police filmed female Shia pilgrims outside the cemetery, which contains the graves of several revered imams.

When five male relatives of the women demanded the police turn over the tapes, there was a scuffle and the men were arrested, according to a witness who refused to be identified for fear of being punished.

After the arrest, hundreds of pilgrims gathered outside the cemetery, demanding their release. Riot police used batons to disperse the crowd, said the witness.

According to Medina’s police, however, the five were arrested and charged with causing a disturbance at the gate of the cemetery after being told visitation hours were over.

On Monday night, another confrontation took place when the religious police banned female Shia pilgrims from visiting an area reserved for them outside the cemetery that overlooks the graves, according to the same witness.

Women in Saudi Arabia are banned from visiting graves.

The witness said police used batons against the angry Shia crowd, which he estimated at 3,000-4,000. Sunni onlookers also joined the fray, attacking Shia pilgrims.

On Tuesday, when police once again prevented people from entering the cemetery, the pilgrims drew knives and attacked, injuring two policemen, according to a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

A member of the crowd was taken to the hospital, the official said.

The Al-Madina newspaper on Tuesday quoted Medina’s governor, Prince Abdul-Aziz bin Majed, as saying that authorities are questioning “those behind the chaotic events” in al-Baqee. He didn’t mention their identities or numbers.

Yasser al-Matrafi, head of public relations at the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice which runs the religious police, told Al-Madina that the religious police had no part in al-Baqee events.

In his appeal, al-Saffar said the treatment of Shia visitors near the al-Baqee Cemetery violates “Islamic morals and human rights” and the tolerant measures called for by the interfaith conferences hosted by the king a few months ago.

When contacted by The Associated Press, al-Saffar’s office confirmed the authenticity of the statement on the cleric’s Web site.

“Visitors are generally harshly treated … and prayer books are confiscated,” said al-Saffar, adding that this makes pilgrimages and religious visits “subject to sectarian tensions.”


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