The banners were demanding and unapologetic. “We will not give up our mosques!” they said. “The mosque is our red line” and “Say no to sectarianism and its supporters!” were other slogans. The banners were being carried by Mosul locals gathered near the Nabi Shiet mosque in central Mosul.
And the reason for the protest? A letter sent last week from the Shiite Muslim Endowment, the body tasked with running Shiite mosques and shrines, to its Sunni Muslim counterpart, the Sunni Muslim Endowment.
In the letter, the Shiite office requested the transfer of ownership of several mosques in the northern Iraqi province of Ninawa from out of the Sunni Muslim Endowment’s hands and into their own. The reason for the request had to do with an Iraqi law, Law 19, passed in late 2005.
Law 19 split responsibilities for mosques and shrines between the two offshoots of Islam and also defines which mosques should be looked after by which sect, Shiite or Sunni. Article 23 of the law defines Shiite mosques as any that have Shiite names.
However the definition is, quite possibly, unfeasibly broad stating that any building that has the name of a Shiite Muslim imam, the name of one of their sons or their son’s followers, should become the responsibility of the Shiite Muslim Endowment.
The difference between a Shiite Muslim imam and a Sunni Muslim imam, should be noted. Broadly speaking, an imam is what Shiites call the members of the Prophet Mohammed’s family, whom they revere highly. Whereas Sunni Muslims call their everyday clerics imams too. In this case, the law refers to the Shiite Muslim imams.
And even in Ninawa province, this has the potential to cause big problems. The majority of the state’s inhabitants are Sunni Muslims. There are also Shiite Muslims but most of them live in certain parts of the state, west of Mosul in the Tal Afar area and east of Mosul in the Bartala and Bashiqa areas. This is because, between 2006 and 2008 when sectarian violence was intense, many of Ninawa’s Shiite Muslims were forced to move into these areas; at one stage, Mosul was largely controlled by Sunni Muslim extremist groups like al-Qaeda, and these targeted Shiite Muslims. In fact, one of the only remaining Shiite mosques inside the city of Mosul – the Faisaliah mosque – was bombed and its cleric killed.
Nobody knows how many Ninawa mosques would be affected by Law 19. However informed sources told NIQASH that there are dozens in Mosul city and most are in areas with a Sunni majority. There are also some affected mosques outside of the city.
And most of the mosques in most of Mosul, whether they have Sunni or Shiite names, are attended by Sunni Muslim worshippers.
Which is why the letter between the two Endowments has caused protests. The first reaction from the Sunni Muslim Endowment was a statement saying that Law 19 is unacceptable and not only that, its implementation would cause all kinds of sectarian strife, not just in Ninawa but all over Iraq. The Sunni Muslim Endowment called upon Ninawa MPs in the Iraqi government to work towards repealing the law. They say that it was passed by Shiite Muslims with their own interests at heart at a time when Sunni Muslim political parties were boycotting the political process.
A local religious scholar, Mohammed Abdul-Wahab al-Shama, explained why Ninawa’s situation was so tricky. A past governor of Mosul, Badruddin Lulu, who ruled the city in the thirteenth century, had given mosques the names of religious figures more traditionally revered by Shiite Muslims – he apparently did this in order to make himself more popular with all sectors of the population. And despite the fact that Mosul was now a mostly Sunni Muslim town, the modern day mosques still had these names.
It didn’t change how the Sunni Muslim worshippers felt about their holy buildings. “Sunnis have much respect for the Prophet’s family. They know that [the family] are a connection to God through their daily prayers,” al-Shama said, referring to the fact that traditionally Shiite Muslims tend to exult members of the Prophet Mohammed’s family more than Sunni Muslims.
Meanwhile the director of the Shiite Muslim Endowment, Mohammed Khader Idriss, said that Law 19 had helped local Shiite Muslims regain control over some nearby sites important to them. For example, the shrine of Zain al-Abideen, in the Bartala area.
Among local politicians, the letter between the Shiite Muslim Endowment and the Sunni Muslim Endowment has been regarded with some suspicion. They point out that despite the fact that Law 19 was passed years ago, it has not been acted upon. The general opinion is that if it was, it would just unnecessarily exacerbate conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq.
For example, Ninawa’s provincial council has basically ignored Law 19, refusing to act upon it or discuss it in official session.
Several politicians have commented upon it however. Yahya Mahjoub, a leading member of the local, mainly Sunni Muslim, Islamic Party, has stated that Law 19 will only lead to more sectarian conflict and that, if the Sunni-attended mosques were transferred to the Shiite Muslim Endowment, it would be seen as a theft.
“Ninawa has already become the flashpoint for all kinds of conflicts,” he noted.
Another Islamic party member, Kifah Hussein, also expressed her surprise at the letter. “They know that we are in favour of postponing discussions on this issue,” she said.
“Just because a mosque has the name of one of the Prophet’s family members doesn’t automatically mean it belongs to the Shiite Muslim Endowment,” MP Faris al-Sanjari, a member of the Sunni Muslim-dominated Iraqiya bloc, the major opposition in Iraq’s federal parliament, said. Al-Sanjari promised he would take the matter up during parliamentary proceedings and that he would put an end to “these attempts to ignite civilian conflict”.
MP Zuhair al-Araji, a Shiite Muslim member of the White Iraqiya bloc, said he had already spoken to Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who heads the mostly Shiite Muslim State of Law bloc, about the matter.
Al-Araji said that as a result of his discussion with al-Maliki, things would remain as they were for the time being. “All matters [pertaining to Law 19] and the transfer of property currently belonging Sunni Muslim Endowment to Shiite Muslim Endowment will be halted,” al-Araji stated. An official letter confirming this would be sent to both Endowments in the next few days, he said.
Al-Araji said there was also a plan afoot to deal with the issue of Law 19 and the two separate Endowments more conclusively; he and some of his fellow MPs were starting a petition to pressure the Iraqi government to dissolve the two separate bodies and to form one single body that would share the responsibilities.