Malaysian religious police raided a three-story shop-house last month and detained more than 100 Shiites who had gathered to mark the death of one of their most beloved saints, Prophet Muhammad's grandson, who was killed in the year 680.
It was one of the largest such sweeps in years, sparking outrage and fear in the country's small but growing Shiite community. Some religious scholars see it as a worrying sign that Islamic authorities are becoming more hard-line.
"Malaysia is trying to become a country a la Taliban that only allows one school of thought," said prominent scholar Asri Zainul Abidin.
"We are the oppressed people," said Kamil Zuhairi Abdul Aziz, the Iranian-trained religious leader for the Lovers of the Prophet's Household, the Shiite group raided by the religious police on Dec. 15.
Kamil estimates there are at least 40,000 Shiites among Malaysia's 16 million Muslims, though the number could be higher as many conceal their faith to avoid trouble. A few have been detained in the past, and some sent to faith rehabilitation centers, but there is no official data on the number of arrests.
Malaysia's ban was issued in 1996 by the National Fatwa Council of top Islamic clerics and seen as unusual in the Muslim world. The council comes under the government's Islamic Advancement Department, so its decrees are de facto law.
The 3 million Shiites in neighboring Indonesia are able to practice freely, though they are often harassed on hard-line Sunni websites. In Bahrain, the government cracks down on Shiite activists, fearing they could be a backdoor for Iranian influence.
Sunni extremists have bombed Shiite gatherings in Pakistan, and much of the violence in Iraq has been between Sunni and Shiite militias as the two sides vie for power.
It's not clear what prompted the recent raid in Malaysia, but Islamic officials defend the ban as crucial to prevent unrest among Muslims.
"Shia is an Iranian sect," said leading cleric Harussani Zakaria, a member of the National Fatwa Council. "It has expanded secretly and now has many supporters who are starting to practice their faith in public. We don't want any religious differences. They are a threat to Muslim unity in Malaysia."
In defense of the raid, several Islamic officials said Shiism could give rise to fanatics as it permits the killing of Muslims from other sects, a claim denied by the Iranian embassy and Shiites here. Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, responding to reporters, said that Shiites don't pose a threat to national security.
The Iranian embassy issued a statement urging the government to prevent the spread of such false information. "Currently, there are about 400 million followers of the radiant path ... in the world and such baseless statements are utter disrespect to all of them," the statement read in part.
Some Malaysian Shiite families have practiced for generations while many others were exposed and subsequently converted to Shiism after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Many meet in one of 40 "hauzars," or "houses of knowledge." The one that Kamil leads, the most prominent and largest with 500 members, is on the top floor of a shop-house in a suburb of the city of Kuala Lumpur.
On Dec. 15, religious police arrived in trucks and detained about 125 people, including some 30 foreigners, mostly from Pakistan. Most were released on bail and given hearing dates at the Shariah court, which adjudicates religious cases.
Officials have said the foreigners are expected to be let off, but the Malaysians could be charged with following the teachings of a deviant movement, which carries a penalty of up to two years in prison.
Kamil has been charged with insulting Islamic officials, with his hearing set for Feb. 17.
Some 100 followers filed in for prayers on the first Tuesday of the new year. A wall mural depicting Noah's Ark greeted them as they entered a long carpeted hall draped with banners in Arabic and separated into sections for men and women.
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