Mosul, Iraq – As residents struggle to rebuild Mosul following a fierce nine-month military operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group in 2017, Sunni authorities are struggling to control properties which have been managed by the community for centuries.
Referred to as endowments in the Arab world, these donated properties are set aside as a trust by members of a religious community. They are usually used for places of worship, education, healthcare, or trade, and support the local community by providing sources of social and economic security for religious authorities.
Iraq‘s Sunni Endowment (Waqf) Office and tradesmen in Nineveh province have accused the Shia Waqf of carrying out land grabs in Sunni-majority Mosul, claiming ownership over Sunni endowments including tens of properties, mosques, shrines, farmlands and markets.
Although the Sunni Waqf has filed complaints with the local and central governments and referred cases to the Ministry of Justice, it says more needs to be done to address the issue amid a years-long battle between Sunni and Shia authorities in Iraq over disputed endowments.
Central and local authorities say they support a legally informed and neutral resolution, but observers are sceptical that the Shia government in Baghdad and local authorities, some of which are believed to be aligned with Iran-backed Shia militia, can resolve the issue. They also fear escalations could reignite sectarian tensions across Iraq.
“This dispute, while essentially economic, exacerbates fears of potential sectarian conflict,” Diyari Salih, professor of geopolitics at Iraq’s Al-Mustansiriya University, told Al Jazeera.
Mosul’s ‘Bala’ Market
Local media reported in September 2018 that vendors in east Mosul appealed to Baghdad to stop investors contracted by the Shia Waqf from taking over Prophet Yunus mosque and shrine, an historic site that was managed by Mosul’s Sunni community for centuries.
Like most historical mosques, Prophet Yunus was part of an endowment that included shops and real estate to provide revenue in the form of rent paid by tenants or investors who occupy it.
After Baghdad declared victory over ISIL in 2017, the Shia Waqf took over the site, converting some of the land into Mosul’s “Bala” or flea market, according to vendors who now rent shops in the market.
Two vendors confirmed to Al Jazeera that they pay rent to the Shia Waqf. One implied that rent collectors rely on intimidation tactics to do so.
“Many of us tenants rent newly built shops set up on plots of land taken over by the Shia Waqf,” a vendor at Souq al-Bala told Al Jazeera.
“The guy who collects our rent works for a real estate office in Mosul. It’s heavily guarded by armed men,” added the vendor, who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons.
“No one knows whether they are from the Hashd or the Shia Waqf,” he added, referring to the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), accused of violence against Sunnis in Iraq.
Although it was not clear how the Shia authority claimed the mosque and its associated property, there is a large sign at the entrance of the market saying it belongs to the Shia authority.
Although endowment disputes in Mosul started when the Shia Waqf demanded the annexation of 20 religious sites in 2010, the rivalry intensified post-ISIL as signs popped up across the city to mark endowments as property of the Shia authority.
The Sunni Waqf says it owns the site, including the market, and that the case, like others, will be taken up with local and central authorities.
“In most cases, the government prefers to avoid dealing directly with these issues, demanding that the Waqfs solve their disputes amicably or go to court,” explained Harith Hasan, non-resident senior fellow at Carnegie Middle East Center.
Mosul Governor Mansour Mar’eed told Al Jazeera the dispute in Mosul is worrying and must be urgently addressed by Baghdad. He promised legal consequences against “anyone who tries to take rent from or control properties [under the Sunni Waqf].”
This dispute over property can be traced back to when the US-appointed governing council in 2003 abolished the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA), which had for years controlled all of Iraq’s Muslim and non-Muslim endowments.
MERA was replaced with several Muslim and non-Muslim offices – including the Office of Sunni Endowments (OSE) and the Office of Shia Endowments (OSHE) – to encourage sectarian and religious autonomy.
In 2008, the government established the Committee of Separation and Isolation (CSI) to oversee the process of distributing endowments among the offices using a set of criteria including properties’ registration details and donors’ religious or sectarian identities.
While the restructuring process solidified sectarian boundaries to help allocate sites to either the OSE or the OSHE, it also transformed neutral spaces into points of contention during a time of rising sectarian divisions.
As long as this battle continues, sectarian tensions will, too.
Many of those contentious cases developed into court battles.
For example, while the OSHE claimed the ancient al-Assifiya Mosque in Baghdad had the grave of an important Shia figure, OSE said the mosque belonged to a Sufi order and had a Sufi grave. The dispute was eventually resolved in favour of OSHE.
While Mosul was a majority-Sunni city for centuries, OSHE believed it had an equal right to endowments that were once administered by MERA.
A senior OSHE source told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, that the Shia Waqf has claimed several commercial sites in Mosul. He implied the takeovers were part of everyday business transactions.
“After tenancy agreements with the Sunni Waqf at Souq al-Sagha came to an end, the Shia Waqf took over those shops,” said the source, referring to Mosul’s historic gold market. “The area is a booming market. Tenants now pay their rent to us.”
The OSE disputed OSHE’s claim over the gold souk, saying it took the issue to court because the takeover disregards criteria set out by CSI.
“If only they [OSHE] followed the [CSI’s] criteria, we would not be having these issues,” Abubakr Kanaan, head of the OSE in Nineveh, told Al Jazeera.
“The Shia Waqf uses the help of armed militiamen to threaten tenants into paying their rent,” he said, referring to shopkeepers at various commercial sites in Mosul.
According to OSE in Nineveh, the Shia Waqf also recently took over three mosques – Prophet Seth, Banat al-Hassan, and Abdelaal – a cemetery it later converted into shops, and was making similar attempts on properties attached to an historic school in Mosul’s Old City.
Shrines and religious sites
The Shia Waqf also made attempts in a letter sent to the OSE in January to take over 17 Mosul-based religious sites and shrines, claiming that the 2005 Law 19, commonly known as the Atabat Law, grants it jurisdiction over the religious sites.
While Law 19 grants the OSHE responsibility for specific shrines and religious sites associated with leading Shia imams and their followers, it does not allude to wider distribution issues.
But in the letter sent by the Shia authority to its Sunni counterpart, the OSHE referred to Law 19 to claim authority over the sites because they were named after Ahl al-Bayt – members of Prophet Muhammad’s family.
The Prophet’s family hold a special place to Shia Muslims, who are known as Shiat Ali or the Party of Ali, because they considered Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, to be the only rightful successor.
Hasan, the Iraq expert, told Al Jazeera: “The mere naming of the sites does not mean they include graves of Shia saints,” adding that the law did not include the 17 sites in question.
Kanaan from the OSE responded: “Sunni families also named endowments after members of the Prophet’s family,” adding that the 17 endowments were in Sunni neighbourhoods. He showed Al Jazeera registration documents saying the sites were donated by the Sunni community.
This rivalry, while ongoing, is “not ideologically-driven or based on sectarian divisions. It is motivated by economic and political reasons instead,” according to political analyst Ghanem Abed, who is based in Erbil, in northern Iraq.
Sectarian conflicts saw thousands of Iraqis killed at the height of the violence between 2005 and 2007.
“The Shia Waqf has tried to challenge [Sunni] influence by taking over as many properties as it can,” said Nineveh provincial council member Ali Khudhair.
“As long as this battle continues, sectarian tensions will, too.”