SHAFAQNA – Saudi Shiites vowed Saturday to continue commemorations of Ashura, among the holiest occasions for their faith, even after a gunman killed five people at one of their gatherings, in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group (also known as Daesh).
Friday’s attack in the Qatif area of Eastern Province was the latest in a series of bombings and shootings linked to the Sunni extremist group in Saudi Arabia over the past year.
A suspect with an automatic weapon “started to shoot randomly” at a Shiite place of worship in the Saihat area of Qatif city in the evening, an interior ministry spokesman said in a statement.
Five Saudis, including a woman, were killed and nine others were wounded, he said.
Police intervened and opened fire, killing the suspect, the spokesman said without giving details about the attacker, adding that the shooting was being investigated.
A group calling itself Islamic State-Bahrain Province said in a statement that one of its “soldiers”, Shughaa al-Dosari, “attacked a Shiite infidel temple with an automatic weapon” in Saihat.
“Infidels will not be safe in the island of Mohammed,” it warned.
Most previous attacks in Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia have targeted the minority Shiite community which often complains of marginalization.
A video, allegedly of the attack, posted on YouTube showed terrified people, among them many children, running frantically for cover inside the place of worship while gun shots could be heard.
Ali al-Bahrani who witnessed the attack said that the gunman was shooting at random as worshipers attended a sermon.
The Ashura commemorations — which peak late next week — mark the killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, by the army of the Caliph Yazid in 680 AD. That event lies at the heart of Islam’s divide into Shiite and Sunni sects.
Jaafar al-Abbad, the uncle of the dead woman, Buthaina al-Abbad, 22, said she died a “martyr for the sake of her beliefs”.
“She was about to graduate from university as a doctor. Now she is a martyr, and this is even better,” he said.
“People are pouring in to congratulate her parents,” said Abbad.
He echoed other Shiites saying such attacks “will not deter us from continuing to observe our rituals”.
Nasema al-Sada, an activist from Eastern Province, said that since the start of Ashura volunteers have set up checkpoints at the entrances to places of worship in coordination with authorities.
Residents from the city of Dammam, where Shiites are not allowed to build places of worship, come to Saihat to attend sermons which take place regularly during Ashura, said Sada.
Witnesses said the Shiite place of worship known as a husseiniya and an adjacent mosque were both targeted in Friday’s shooting.
“We demand more protection and a law that would criminalize sectarianism,” said Sada. “We are living in a place made out of paper, which could catch fire any minute.”
“People are angry. And these attacks will only make us more attached to our rituals,” she said.
“They can’t stop us from practicing our beliefs.”
Security has been tightened at Shiite facilities since May when separate suicide mosque bombings killed 25 people.
Both attacks were claimed by IS, which considers Shiites to be heretics.
During Ashura last year, gunmen killed seven Shiite worshipers, including children, in the eastern town of Al-Dalwa.
The interior ministry said the unprecedented incident had links to IS — which has also targeted Saudi police.
Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Gulf neighbors last year joined a United States-led military coalition that is bombing IS in Syria and Iraq where the jihadists have set up an Islamic “caliphate”.
In July, Saudi Arabia said it had broken up an IS-linked network and arrested more than 430 suspects involved in attacks and plots.
Earlier Friday, Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, branded IS as an enemy of Islam.
“The reality is that they are shedding Muslim blood and destroying Islam. There is no good in them,” he said during weekly prayers at the Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque in Riyadh.