- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 3, 2012

NAJAF, Iraq — An exhibit of wax statues, depicting some of Shiite Muslims’ most beloved clerics and intended to pay tribute to this Iraqi holy city’s contributions to culture, has been dipped in controversy as some Sunnis decry the figures as heretical.

The wax sculptures are scheduled to be displayed at a museum in Najaf; but even before the exhibit opens, some Sunni Muslims - rarely shy about highlighting their religious differences with Shiites - are denouncing the depictions as a violation of Islamic law.

Even some Shiite clerics are a bit leery.

“Even those dead people whose statues are displayed [would have] disapproved of this,” said Ali Bashir al-Najafi, a spokesman for one of Iraq’s top Shiite clerics.

Some Muslim clerics of both sects interpret Islamic law as forbidding most depictions of people and even animals in art or other likenesses. They believe such likenesses could be perceived as false idols and, therefore, taboo.

The wax figures portray bearded clerics in turbans and politicians in freshly pressed suits.

They include Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was beloved by Iraq’s Shiites for encouraging Friday prayers during Saddam Hussein’s regime. He was assassinated by Saddam’s agents in 1999.

Also depicted is Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who was born in Najaf. He was Lebanon’s top Shiite cleric until his death in 2010.

All of the figures were either born, studied or buried in Najaf, located 100 miles south of Baghdad. The city of roughly 1 million people is home to Iraq’s religious Shiite leadership, called the marjaiyah, and holds the tomb of Imam Ali, who Shiites consider the Prophet Muhammad’s rightful successor.

Sunni-Shiite divide

The exhibit is the brainchild of Sheik Ali Mirza, a Shiite cleric. He recalled being inspired during a visit to a wax museum in Beirut that included a likeness of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Sheik Mirza said the figures in Najaf are so lifelike that visitors sometimes “raise their hands to salute the statues as if they were alive.” He said the statues are all Shiite because the exhibit will be in Najaf, which he called “the Vatican of Shiite Muslims.”

The wax figures were originally intended to be part of festivities associated with the city being named the 2012 Islamic Capital of Culture. But the cultural arm of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation - the grouping of Islamic nations once known as the Organization of the Islamic Conference - announced recently that the festival has been canceled at the Iraqi government’s request.

The event already had been beset by accusations of mismanagement and corruption. But the wax figures are not going to just melt away. Officials said the figures will still be displayed at a Najaf museum.

The cleric knows the likenesses won’t be to everybody’s liking.

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