The recent bombing and burning of a mosque by the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) in the Yemeni province of Dhamar is an alarming sign of the group's punitive sectarianism, Yemeni observers told Al-Mashareq.
The October 19th attack was staged after the residents of Bani Falah -- a village in Jahran district, north of Dhamar city -- objected to the Houthis' forceful appointment of a mosque orator.
According to local media reports, the militia placed explosives throughout the mosque and detonated them, destroying all the contents inside the house of worship, including Qur'ans, equipment and furniture.
This sparked official and public outrage, with the Yemeni Ministry of Endowments condemning the incident in an October 22nd statement.
"This is a criminal act that aims to bring residents to their knees and force them to accept [Houthi] orators who incite and fuel racism and disseminate Iran’s sectarian ideas that are alien to Yemenis," the statement said.
It went on to stress that the militia will be held accountable for targeting mosques, bombing Qur'an teaching centres and kidnapping and killing imams and orators, and vowed the perpetrators of such acts will not escape justice.
Seizing control of mosques
In addition to staging a political and military coup, said Deputy Minister of Endowments and Guidance Tareq al-Qurashi, the Houthis have sought to forcefully impose their own ideology on mosques and places of worship.
They have done this in various ways, he told Al-Mashareq.
"The first is the occupation and seizure of mosques, and changing the religious discourse on those pulpits" to ensure it falls into line with the doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist), he said.
This calls for allegiance to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
The second is the closure of some mosques, and "diverting them from their main role as places of worship", al-Qurashi added.
Mosques have been transformed into military barracks, weapons depots and places for sleeping and chewing qat, he said, which is a clear deviation from their intended purpose.
In the event that the mosque's congregation and leadership do not comply with Houthi directives, some places of worship have been rigged with explosives and blown up, he said, "as was the case with the mosque in Dhamar province".
Such actions -- which include the burning of the holy Qur'an -- violate the precepts and teachings of Islam, he added.
'Approach copied from Iran'
As a result of the Houthis' targeting of mosques, many worshipers now refrain from going to them, including Ammar Ali, 35, a private sector employee.
"I now pray at home, including the Friday prayer, which the Houthis have devoted to mobilising fighters for the fronts," he told Al-Mashareq.
Lawyer and human rights activist Abdel Rahman Berman said the Houthis "are a sectarian group that does not tolerate any doctrine or sect that disagrees with its ideology".
Some mosques that do not fall into line with the Houthis' ideology have been destroyed, he told Al-Mashareq, while others have had Houthi-affiliated orators forcibly appointed to them.
Many people no longer go to mosques because they are controlled by the Houthis, he said, "and some walk out during the Friday prayers".
Berman said the burning and destruction of Sunni mosques is an approach copied from Iran, where Sunnis are forbidden from having their own mosques, and in recent years, authorities have destroyed unofficial prayer Sunni spaces.
The burning of the mosque in Dhamar "revealed the extent of the hatred and vengefulness they [Houthis] have toward the community", he said.
"The worshipers did no wrong other than express their rejection of the Houthi orator, and walked out of the mosque in a clear signal that the majority of the community reject them and their ideology," Berman said.
This action exposed the fact that the Houthis have forcefully seized control of public life and discourse in the areas they control, he noted.