Shi’ite minarets reclaim skyline

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BAGHDAD — Despite repeated assaults, minarets of Shi’ite mosques are reclaiming their places on Baghdad’s landscape faster than Sunni-led insurgents can destroy them.

Many of these soaring spires are signs of liberation to the 15 million Shi’ite Muslims who were forbidden under Saddam Hussein to raise minarets outside their mosques.

The minarets also provide a grim reminder of sectarian bloodshed after Saddam’s ouster.

Acer Salim Hashem, manager of the Zouia Mosque in central Baghdad, supervised the two-year construction of a 125-foot minaret costing $40,000, which was completed late last year and financed through private donations.

Mr. Hashem said the Ba’athist government restricted the construction of minarets at Shi’ite mosques to check Shi’ite unity and prevent Saddam’s enemies from using the towers as vantage points to spy on his palaces and his movements.

“It was just a dirty reason not to build minarets,” Mr. Hashem said.

Minarets are not required on mosques, but have become symbols of worship for Muslims worldwide.

“The mosque is most important because it’s a place to form a community through prayer, but the minaret is a powerful psychological inspiration,” said Ali Al-Khateeb, a 56-year-old Shi’ite cleric and religious scholar in Baghdad.

“Similar to a church steeple with a cross, it lets everyone in the neighborhood and anyone passing by to distinguish the building from others as a place for prayer,” Mr. Al-Khateeb said.

But Iraqi Shi’ites are paying a price for the religious freedom granted when the Saddam regime was toppled.

Mr. Hashem, whose family founded the Zouia Mosque, relied on his polite manner and his friends’ awareness to circumvent Saddam’s web of agents skulking about his neighborhood.

Today, he exercises a similar approach because of the insurgents. He also has hired guards with automatic assault rifles who frisk everyone who seeks entry, and he has blocked the road in front of the mosque with cement barriers and sandbags.

Minarets originally served as watchtowers but were later used to recite the call for prayer. Today, speakers are affixed to the minarets of most mosques, and announcers, known as muezzins, summon the faithful five times daily.

Mr. Hashem periodically intones the call to prayer. “For me,” he said, “it’s one way to feel closer to God.”

Prayer times at his mosque are determined according to astronomical readings by Islamic scholars in Baghdad and Najaf.

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