Ashura: Why holy day brings fear for Afghan Shiites

ashuraKABUL: Millions of Shiite Muslims in deeply religious Afghanistan are bracing for terrorist attacks as they prepare to commemorate Ashura, one of the holiest days in the Islamic calendar.

Security has been tightened at Shiite mosques in the capital Kabul, where hundreds of civilians are being trained and armed to help protect religious sites from suicide bombers and gunmen.

Here are some key facts about the sacred day.

What is Ashura?

One of the most important festivals for Shiite Muslims falls on the 10th day of Muharram, which is the mourning period for the seventh-century killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Ashura, which is this weekend, marks the murder of Hussein and his family in the year 680. His tragic end laid the foundation for the faith practised by the Shiite community.

For Shiites around the world, Ashura is a symbol of the struggle against oppression.

What happens on Ashura?

There are around three million Shiites in overwhelmingly Sunni Afghanistan and the majority belong to the Hazara ethnic group.

On the Ashura day Shiites across the country gather at mosques and shrines for ceremonial mourning that involves beating their chests, slapping their faces and hitting their backs with chains until they bleed to commemorate the violent deaths of Hussein and his family.

The faithful also drive in convoys through the streets carrying colourful flags and playing special songs dedicated to Hussein.

Why are Shiites under attack?

The Taliban, which follows the Sunni branch of Islam, have been accused of committing human rights violations against the Shiites during their 1996-2001 rule.

The emergence of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan in recent years has seen attacks against the minority group escalate.

IS jihadists consider Shiites apostates and have launched numerous assaults on their mosques and massacred hundreds of people.

In the most recent major attack in August a suicide bomber and gunmen stormed a Shiite mosque in Kabul during Friday prayers killing 28 people and wounding scores more.