Jihadis attack UNESCO-recognized Sufi site in Timbuktu

A militant of the Islamist group Ansar Dine attacked the Timbuktu tomb of 16th-century saint Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar—a popular pilgrimage point classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—a spokesman for the faction told the AP May 6. A group of Muslims who showed up at the site for Friday worship two days before were stopped and threatened by Ansar Dine armed militants, who told them that honoring the saint is "haram" (forbidden). The militants then began to sack the holy site. A Malian parliament member for Timbuktu, El Hadj Baba Haidara, told Reuters: "They attacked the grave, broke doors, windows and wooden gates that protect it. They brought it outside and burn it." He warned of armed resistance to the Islamist occupation in Timbuktu if such attacks continue: "There is a risk the people may revolt because this is something that affects their dignity. This tomb is sacred, it is too difficult to bear." (AP, AlJazeera, BBC News, May 6; Reuters, May 5)

The attack comes days after Irina Bokova, head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), issued an appeal to all armed factions in Timbuktu to respect the city's cultural sites following reports that a library with precious ancient books and documents had been plundered. "This heritage must be protected," Bokova said, calling for "concerted action" from Mali's warring factions, neighboring governments, Interpol, customs organizations and art collectors to recover the missing texts and keep them off the black market. "The citizens of Timbuktu have rallied to protect these ancient documents but they need our help," she said. (AllAfrica, April 16)

On April 20, Timbuktu residents reportedly held a protest march against the occupation of the city by Ansar Dine and other Islamist factions. Despite the claims of Tuareg rebels to be in control of the city, the Islamist factions appear to have a free hand. (Magharebia, April 27) While the report from Magharebia (news service of the US Africa Command) says the militants did not interfere with the march, Reuters reported April 21 that gunmen had "opened fire to disperse residents protesting against the occupation of their town." The Reuters report was datelined Bamako, while the Magharebia report was filed from Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital. Both reporters said they had interviewed sources in Timbuktu, presumably by phone.

The tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar is among 16 cemeteries and mausoleums classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Timbuktu. The city has 333 tombs holding the remains of Muslim saints that are revered by the local faithful but viewed as outposts of idolatry by the fundamentalist factions. A list of the "333 saints of Timbuktu" is online at the Explore Timbuktu website.

See our last post on Timbuktu, the Sufis and the struggle within Islam.

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