TEHRAN, Iran – Shiites across the Middle East on Thursday marked Ashoura, an annual commemoration mourning the 7th century death of Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein, one of Shiite Islam's most beloved saints.
For Shiites, who represent over 10 percent of the world's 1.8 billion Muslims, the remembrance of Hussein is an emotional event that sees many believers weep over his death at the Battle of Karbala in present-day Iraq. Some beat their backs with chains, flagellating themselves in a symbolic expression of regret for not being able to help Hussein before his martyrdom.
But the commemorations can prove tempting targets for Sunni extremist groups, who view Shiites as heretics.
In Iran, the Mideast's Shiite power, groups of men beat their backs with chains in Tehran. Other mourners beat their chests while carrying black, green and red flags. State television showed similar mourning ceremonies across the country.
For Iranians, this Ashoura comes as the United States is re-imposing sanctions on Iran previously lifted by its nuclear deal with world powers, despite Tehran's compliance with the accord. While Iran's national currency, the rial, plummets, Ashoura provides a moment to fuel mourners' defiance with its message of sacrifice and dignity in the face of coercion.
In neighboring Pakistan, paramilitary troops, police and intelligence agents fanned out to protect mourners' processions. Authorities cut mobile phone services in major cities holding commemorations for fear of militant bombings. Motorbikes were stopped from carrying multiple passengers to prevent drive-by shootings. Some mourners there sliced their backs with knives to express their grief.
Battered by brazen and deadly attacks by an Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, minority Shiites stationed heavily armed guards at their mosques Thursday. Police also were on hand.
Basir Mujahid, a spokesman for Kabul's police chief, said large vehicles, including trucks and SUVs, were banned from streets where mosques are located to prevent car bombs.
Shiites in Iraq, Lebanon and other nations marked the day as well.
Associated Press writers Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.