Why Shiite pilgrimage to Karbala had special meaning this year

Over the years, the Shiite pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, Iraq – bigger than the hajj – has been a frequent target of Sunni militants, including ISIS. But the faithful keep coming, and ISIS is in retreat.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
A young participant stands at a tea stop. Perhaps the largest annual religious event in the world, the weeklong march to Karbala, Iraq, attracts an estimated 13.8 million Shiites from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

For Iraq, guaranteeing the safety of millions of Shiite faithful on their annual ​pilgrimage to the shrine of a revered saint in Karbala has always been a monumental challenge.

The march, the largest annual religious pilgrimage on earth, ​is in defiance of Iraq’s chronic insecurity and the frequent attempts by Sunni militants – including, recently, Islamic State (ISIS) fighters – to derail this event with violence.

​This year, the pilgrimage ​to the shrine of Imam Hussein ​held special resonance, as ISIS in Iraq has been all but defeated in recent months by Iraqi security forces – supported by Iran-backed Shiite militias and a US-led bombing campaign.

Amid the striking iconography of Imam Hussein as “Lord of the Martyrs,” the pilgrims’ path was lined this year with posters of Iraq’s own Shiite “martyrs” who died battling ISIS – a blending of religious and political significance that is common to modern Shiite belief.

The risks of attack were high, but so, too, were the rewards for the millions of Shiite pilgrims whose faith overcomes fear.

“We don’t care about security – we just come,” says Fadl Abbas, a truck driver nursing blistered feet, swollen legs, and a new limp after his 50-mile march.

“The love of Imam Hussein takes you on the right path in your life. You don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t drink. He represents all the good things in life,” says Mr. Abbas. “If you love Hussein, you will not be afraid. It makes me brave.”

At the climax of days of walking on roads clogged with nearly 14 million fellow believers, pilgrims raise their arms in deference – and start taking video with their smart phones – when they first see the shrine of Imam Hussein, with its ornate tiled façade crowned with a gold cupola and minarets.

Inside at the gilt tomb itself, the emotional intensity of the march, known as arbaeen, overflows for the grandson of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. He was killed in battle in 680 AD, and the legend of his death – his small band overwhelmed by the vast army of an illegitimate caliph – demonstrated the qualities of faith and resistance that Shiites aim to emulate.

Around the tomb, true believers crush toward the gleaming silver and gold metal frame, hands outstretched and tears flowing, the air squeezed from their lungs by the press of humanity, as they try to physically touch their sacred imam.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

Violence no deterrent

The arbaeen pilgrimage has been targeted repeatedly by the Sunni jihadists of ISIS, who take the extreme view that Shiites are infidels. Those risks have grown since ISIS swept across the border from Syria in June of 2014, vowing to topple the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and destroy the “filth-ridden” Shiite shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf.

But the violence has never dented Shiite enthusiasm for arbaeen, despite sectarian incidents such as a suicide car bomb in November 2016 that killed at least 125 pilgrims returning home to Iran.

This two-week marching period, which peaked on Nov. 10, passed without serious incident. Some 55,000 extra security personnel were deployed, and strict rules kept all non-official vehicles 20 miles from the shrine.

Columns of ordinary people, many holding religious flags, stretched along roads on every horizon. Among them came entire families, from old men in wheelchairs and young hipsters with gelled hair and tight T-shirts, to young mothers in headscarves pushing strollers with determination.

All along the way, volunteers grilled fish over open fires, or made bubbling stews and soups for pilgrims in cavernous aluminum tubs.

“People of course keep worrying about security, because it’s a legitimate worry,” says the governor of Karbala province, Akeel al-Toreihi.

Bigger than the hajj

New high-tech cameras were installed west of Karbala “because we expect the enemy to come from the desert,” he says – the same place security forces fought ISIS to stymie an attack two years ago. Four or five new drones monitored roads and farmlands.

Some 650 buses carried pilgrims who couldn’t walk the final stretch. Approaching the shrine itself, pilgrims passed through five pat-down body searches.

Security has improved, but the challenge was acute for the largest annual gathering of any kind on the planet. According to the Karbala shrine authority, some 13.8 million pilgrims took part in arbaeen this year. More than 2 million Iranians were issued visas, with many more crossing overland without them. Some 30,000 Afghans came by air, and another 30,000 overland through Iran. Upwards of 200,000 Gulf Arabs and 50,000 Lebanese also joined the march.

By comparison, the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia – a rite which all of the world’s estimated 1.8 billion Muslims are meant to undertake at least once in their lifetime – receives far fewer than 3 million pilgrims.

In Iraq, the numbers do not include the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who conduct a vast logistical exercise along every road leading to the city, sometimes well over 100 miles distant, by setting up food, water, rest and health facilities along the way. All such services are free for pilgrims.

Unified by threat

And yet, instead of deterring pilgrims, the threat from ISIS has unified Iraq’s Shiites, says Governor Toreihi.

“It’s a big challenge to prove your presence [for Shiites]. Many people think that they will be blessed because of these rituals,” says Toreihi. “Because Hussein rose up against injustice, he became the symbol for revolution. That principle … became a part of the subconscious of Shiites.”

Iraqi soldiers securing the route often wear sashes in the red, white, and green colors of Iraq’s flag, and post banners stating they are “honored to serve” passing pilgrims. A clear reverence is shown to martyrs of Iraq’s anti-ISIS fight – regular soldiers and Shiite militiamen alike.

For many arbaeen pilgrims, though, politics are secondary to connecting with their beliefs in divinity.

“It is always an amazing feeling when you get to touch Hussein,” says Amal Hussein, a college graduate who has joined her family for numerous journeys to Karbala.

“It is like reaching heaven,” she says.

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