Edmonton imam to keep low profile to end of pilgrimage

News Agencies – October 31, 2011

A Canadian Muslim cleric will have to keep a low profile and stay quiet about being arrested, bruised, bloodied and shackled in a holding cell while he completes a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.  Usama Al-Atar, a well-known Edmonton Shia spiritual leader, was arrested after a clash with Saudi religious police who noticed his group performing supplications at the Jannat al-Baqi, the graveyard near the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.  “I was falsely arrested and held by Saudi authorities for the best part of the previous 36 hours in what can only be described as horrid conditions,” Dr. Al-Atar said in a statement.

The cemetery has long been a place of tension between Shia pilgrims and the religious police, who uphold a strict application of Wahhabist Islam at odds with other Muslim schools of thought. A friend travelling with Dr. Al-Attar said that the Saudi religious police had warned them twice the previous day that they were being too loud. Dr. Al-Atar, a post-doctoral chemistry researcher at the University of Alberta, is familiar to many Shia because he has given lectures around the world. The Edmonton cleric has denounced human-rights violations in Saudi Arabia and in neighbouring Bahrain.

Mahmood Mavani, president of the Islamic Shia Ithna-Asheri Association of Edmonton, a southeast city mosque where Dr. Al-Atar served as an imam, praised the work of the federal government and the local MP, Mike Lake, in pressing for his friend’s release.