As an expression of loyalty to the Islamic figures buried in Karbala’s shrines, visitors leave cash and in-kind contributions to the religious authorities, dropping money into what is known as the ‘shibak’, a silver made box that looks like a net surrounding the tombs. Money from the shibak is gathered up by the shrine authorities twice a month.
“Most visitors donate some in-kind or in-cash money as waqf for the sacred shrine if God responds to their prayers," explained local sheik Abel Hasan al-Furati.
According to informed sources the largest donations are given by Gulfi and Iranian Shiites. Some give cash, others precious gifts such as Iranian made carpets, rare jewellery and gemstones. Last month one women from Bahrain even handed over one kilo of gold to be used for the gilding work of the shrine’s dome.
It is estimated that tens of millions of dollars are donated each year.
However, the religious authorities from the different mosques in the city refuse to reveal exactly how much they collect in total, provoking some fears that the money is being used for illicit ends and particularly the funding of militias.
Two years ago Ahmad al-Hussaini, a former government official, publicly criticized the holy shrine committee in Karbala for not disclosing the amount collected and how it was subsequently spent. Al-Hussaini, who was responsible for Karbala’s Provincial Council al-Awqaf and Religious Tourism Committee, accused outlawed armed militias of dominating the financial revenues of the holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala. “The military arms of these groups are paid for from donations and money vows of visitors to the holy shrines,” he declared.
Later al-Hussaini apologized after the administration committee of the shrines requested evidences in support of his accusations.
But al-Hussaini is not the only person to have raised the issue. Other also question how the mosque’s funds are collected and distributed.
Under Saddam the shrines were administered by the ministry of Awqaf and religious affairs. But today this ministry has been dissolved and replaced by three diwans: a Shiite, Sunni and Christian diwan, each responsible for their respective sites.
Accordingly, the government no longer maintains total control over the internal administration of the mosques. One member of the Hussein mosque’s religious committee, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Niqash that “the religious tourism committee of the local government has nothing to do with the management of Karbala’s holy shrines and does not have any details on this issue.”
Officials from the Hussein mosque would not tell Niqash how the donated money is spent. It is clear that some of the amount is directed towards the upkeep of the mosques. Meanwhile, the shrines are also investing some of their funds into commercial ventures, such as poultry, in order to diversify their income sources.
“A new section for investment in the Hussein shrine was recently opened,” said Hassan Rasheed, an official at the Hussein mosque, noting that “investing part of the shrine’s surplus amounts was recommended by the Najaf religious authority in order to bring in revenues and offer better services.”
But beyond these ventures, it is not clear how the rest of the money is distributed. Rasheed would only say that the money is used for religious purposes and that strict internal mechanisms ensure that financial manipulation or embezzlement cannot take place. According to Rasheed the money gathering and accounting procedure is tightly controlled and monitored by an audit office to prevent any fraudulent behaviour.
Moreover, Rasheed says that good "religious sense" is used to preserve and spend the shrines’ revenues. He said that workers in the two shrines are selected according to very specific conditions, foremost among them that they be strong believers in God.
Yet despite the large donations the shrines receive yearly, they are also currently appealing for additional government funds “to implement reconstruction projects and improve the level of services offered to visitors,” said Rasheed.
At the moment the shrines receive funds from the Ministry of Finance in the form of grants. But Karbala’s governor recently asked the central government to allocate a percentage of oil revenues to holy shrines to further support religious tourism. Additionally, the shrines’ administrative bodies have called for the establishment of a civil airport in Karbala for the same purpose.