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Mourners taking part in an annual religious procession in Funtua, Nigeria, 12 October 2016

Nine dead as Nigeria police open fire on Shia Muslim procession

Clashes in Funtua come after some northern states tried to ban Ashura processions

At least nine people are reported to have died after police opened fire on a procession of Shia Muslims marking the Ashura festival in Nigeria.

Graphic images posted to social media appeared to show at least three women among the bodies of those killed in the clashes in the town of Funtua, in the north-western Katsina state.

An eye witness to the clashes told BBC News the army and police had tried to block the procession, which commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

He said police then opened fire on the crowd, and while he had seen only eight bodies, many more were feared wounded.

The UK-based UK-based Islamic Human Rights Commission said it had received responds suggesting soldiers had used live ammunition and tear gas as clashes broke out.

The IHRC said it had also received reports of police setting fire to the Kaduna Markaz mosque in Kaduna city, the main mosque used by the proscribed Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN).

“Today’s violence confirmed fears that the Nigerian authorities would seek to sabotage the annual commemoration of Ashura in the country,” it said in a statement.

What is Ashura?

The day falls each year on the 10th of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. This year, it corresponds with Tuesday 11 October, though the festival begins for observant Muslims at sunset on Monday, in some countries the day before is also a public holiday, and events can span a period of more than a week.

Ashura is marked by all Muslims, and commemorations can include a voluntary fast.

But the day is a major part of the religious calendar for Shia Muslims, for whom it is a solemn occasion to mourn the death of Hussein in 680 AD at Karbala in modern-day Iraq.

The day has become best-known around the world for public displays of self-flagellation, but observing Muslims also conduct reenactments of the martyrdom of Hussein and take part in parades and displays of fire-spinning.

Inevitably, the self-flagellation has been a cause for some controversy. Some religious leaders say the graphic scenes that result tend to paint Shia Muslims in a backward or negative light.

And there has been an effort in recent years to channel the annual blood-letting into a more constructive and progressive practice. Some leaders have suggested marking the day by donating blood.

By Adam Withnall, this report was first published in the Independent

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