The arrest and expulsion of an Egyptian man over an alleged "offense to Islam" has sparked riots, in the run up to a Muslim religious holiday.
Soror Hassan Srour, an Egyptian citizen who worked at American oil company Baker Hughes in the oil production department, has been expelled from Iraq after being accused of an "offense to Islam." His alleged crime: tearing down posters mourning the death of Imam Al-Hussein, a Shi'ite "martyr" who refused to surrender the Islamic Caliphate to Sunni leaders in 680 CE.
Iraqi media news outlets report that the decision to expel the Egyptian worker was made by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is himself a Shi'ite Muslim. Another British worker at the company has also been deported after reports of similar alleged crimes.
Dozens of locals protested outside of the Baker Hughes offices, claiming that the workers' actions are "an offense to Islam." The Basra Provincial Council has also filed a lawsuit against the American firm. One of the council spokespeople explained to reporters that the American embassy responded by sending a letter stating that it will retrain its employees to avoid committing sensitive religious offenses.
Sectarian tensions between Iraq's Shi'ite majority and Sunni minority have reached fever pitch over the past few months, with thousands died during a wave of attacks by Islamist groups.
Despite being the majority, Shi'ites faced persecution under the rule of Saddam Hussein and were politically marginalized. Saddam's ouster at the hands of western forces in 2003 paved the way for a Shi'ite resurgence, which Iraq's Sunni population says has translated into persecution of their own communities, as well as an expanded Iranian influence in the country.
The riots come just ahead of the Islamic holiday of Muharram, the beginning of the new year on the Islamic calendar. Shi'ite Muslims commemorate the day by working themselves into a frenzy in the morning of Hussein’s ‘martyrdom.’ Some also engage in self-flagellation, going so far as to include razors and spikes in the chains they use to whip themselves.
According to Sunni Muslim tradition, Mohammed fasted on this day and asked other people to fast as well. Sunni Muslims also remember the day, claiming that Moses fasted on that day to express gratitude to God for liberating the Israelites from Egypt.
A video of the rioting after the arrest is below: