The Endowments Ministry is closing the shrine in Islamic Cairo’s historic Hussein Mosque from Thursday to Saturday to bar followers of the Shia faith from worshipping there during the festival of Ashura.
Egypt’s Shia minority has long been subject to ongoing oppression both from religious and state figures, who have encouraged distrust of the community. Sectarian incitement reached a crescendo in June 2013, when a group of Salafi sheikhs led the brutal mob lynching of four Shia men in a village outside Cairo.
The ministry will not allow Shia rituals to be performed in its mosques, ministry undersecretary Mohamed Abdel Razek told the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.
“Shias are taking advantage of Ashura to celebrate their beliefs with special rituals like slapping themselves and cutting their cheeks, in violation of the Quran,” the official argued.
Ashura — which commemorates the deaths of Hussein and Hassan, the grandsons of the Prophet Mohamed, in 680 — is one of the most significant Shia holidays. A minority of Shia followers self-flagellate and cut themselves to mourn the two holy figures.
Hussein’s head is believed to be buried in a casket in the mosque’s mausoleum, making the institution historically important to the Shia faith.
Hussein Mosque is considered to be one of the holiest religious sites in Egypt — it’s also the symbol of Al-Azhar University, a center of Sunni learning.
Razek told the privately owned news site Al Arabiya that a security perimeter would be established around the mosque and 20 Endowments Ministry employees would be stationed at the entrance to bar access to Shia followers. The Imam Hussein shrine within the mosque would only be opened for 15 minutes after Friday prayers to prevent a large number of people from entering, he told Al-Masry Al-Youm.
The Endowments Ministry previously banned Ashura observances in the entirety of Hussein Mosque in 2013, when the Shia community in Cairo announced it would attempt to worship there.
That year, a Shia activist was arrested on charges of allegedly insulting the prophet.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Hussein Mosque would be closed from Thursday to Saturday. It has been corrected to reflect that only the Imam Hussein shrine within the mosque will be closed, not the mosque itself.