BEIRUT, Lebanon – Millions of Muslims across the Middle East on Wednesday marked the first day of Eid al-Adha, the most important holiday in the Islamic calendar, with prayers, family reunions and traditional sweets for the occasion.
In Lebanon, where a yearlong political crisis took away much of the holiday cheer, the usually festive mood was subdued. It was a bleak holiday in the Palestinian territories, too, particularly in Gaza City where the holiday fell under the shadow of Hamas' violent takeover and the deepening international isolation that followed.
But in Iraq, some expressed a feeling of optimism after months of declining violence.
"This Eid differs from the previous ones, as we have received unexpected numbers of worshippers," Jamal al-Kubaisi, imam of Abu Hanifa, the biggest Sunni mosque in Baghdad, told The Associated Press.
More than 10,000 faithful showed at Abu Hanifa in the Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Azamiyah at sunrise to perform the first prayers for the holiday.
"I am so optimistic this Eid, and I wanted to avoid talking about politics so as not to bother people while I see happiness on their faces," he said.
In Both Lebanon and Iraq, however, Sunni and Shiite Muslims disagreed on the start of the Eid, reflecting tensions between them. Shiites in Iraq will mark Eid on Thursday, while many Shiites in Lebanon will start the Eid on Friday.
The day is set by sighting of the moon, with Muslims traditionally following a lunar calendar for its holy days.
Thousands of worshippers prayed at mosques in the Lebanese capital Beirut and in towns and villages across the country — and almost all sermons centered on politics.
"The situation has become unbearable. The people cannot take more sadness and gloom," lamented Grand Mufti Sheik Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, the spiritual leader of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims.
Lebanon has been without president since Nov. 23 when President Emile Lahoud stepped down without a successor. Nine attempts by the sharply divided parliament to elect a new president have failed because of a boycott by opposition lawmakers. The country is deeply split between the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the Hezbollah-led opposition, backed by Syria and Iran.
Both sides have agreed on the election of Army Commander Michel Suleiman as a compromise president, but disputes persist over political issues and the mechanism to bring him to the presidency since Lebanon's constitution bans an army chief from becoming president. Another voting attempt will be made Saturday, when parliament is scheduled to meet again.
There are fears the crisis could degenerate into street violence, particularly following the Dec. 13 car bomb assassination of a top Lebanese general who had been expected to take over as head of the army after Suleiman's election.
Kabbani, in his sermon at the Grand Omari mosque in Beirut attended by Saniora, urged legislators to "head to Parliament on Saturday to elect a president according to the constitution and begin to revive state institutions that protect the country."
Saniora and other politicians have issued statements apologizing for not receiving well wishers this year, due to the political situation.
Still, many Lebanese celebrated by taking their children out to play, followed by lunch with relatives and friends. Al-Adha this year falls only few days before the Christmas holidays, making for an extended holiday during which many Lebanese expatriates chose to come to Lebanon to celebrate.
The arrival lounge at Beirut airport was clogged with visitors coming to spend the year-end holidays with their loved ones, despite the volatile situation.
Al-Adha holiday, or the Feat of the Sacrifice, commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God — According to Muslim tradition, after Abraham expresses his willingness, God sends the prophet two sheep instead for slaughter.
In neighboring Syria, many families spent the day outdoors and at amusement parks.
"The Eid is reflected in the eyes of the children," said Munzer Turjman, a 42-year-old Syrian merchant watching over his two daughters as they played on swings. "But what about the children of Iraq and Palestine? Don't they have the right to be happy too?" he asked.
Hiba Zuheili, a 26-year-old housewife, said she has been toiling in the kitchen for the past two days to prepare for the holiday.
"But when you see the children's happiness, you forget all your troubles," she said.