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Mumbai Khoja Shias get back pilgrim shelters in Iraq

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Brief History

Among the nasty things "the butcher of Baghdad" Saddam Hussein did to the Shias in Iraq include confiscation of their several properties. And the confiscated properties included many musafirkhanas (shelters or residences for pilgrims) built by Anjuman-e-Faiz-e-Panjetani (AFP), a body of Khoja Shias of Mumbai, formed in 1912 to assist the pilgrims visiting the sacred shrines in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Thirteen years after Saddam was deposed and a decade after the dictator was hanged on December 30, 2006, the Khoja Shias in the city have some reasons to rejoice. The musafirkhanas that the elders in the community built and managed through a branch of AFP in Iraq have been returned to them. One of the musafirkhanas, Al-Najaf Residence in Iraqi city Najaf (Shias' first imam Hazrat Ali's shrine is here), is re-opening on May 25.

To celebrate the occasion which also coincides with the birthday celebrations of 12th imam, Imam Mahdi, eminent Khojas from across the world are assembling in Najaf. Predictably, several have gone from the city too. With a capacity to house around 70 pilgrims, this shelter is just 90 meters from Imam Ali's shrine and is equipped with modern amenities. It took 20 months and cost 2 million US $ (Rs 13.48 crore) to restore Al-Najaf Residence to its old glory. Renovation of musafirkhanas are underway also at the holy cities of Karbala and Kazmain.

Hardships & Struggles

The story to get back pilgrim centres and restore them to their original heritage architectural aesthetics is replete with incessant fights with Saddam's brutal regime and tireless persuasion with the post-Saddam rulers of Iraq. "For four decades we fought for these properties. It gives us immense pleasure to see them being re-dedicated to the service of pilgrims for whom our forbearers established them," says AFP's president Salman Sultan Moloobhoy who can't recall the number of times he has visited Iraq to sort out issues with Iraqi authorities. "He must have visited Iraq over 50 times ever since we got the possession of the properties after Saddam's fall," says AFP's vice-president, Mohib Ali Roshanali Nasser who also credits London-based cleric Syed Ala Al Musawi and Ali Al Dabbagh, a minister in former Iraqs PM Nouri al-Maliki for their interventions. In 1968, Abdul Husein Jetha Gokal who was managing AFP's properties in Iraq was hanged and Saddam's regime confiscated all the properties AFP owned.

Mohibali's father, Roshanali Nasser who became AFP's president after the demise of Sultan Ahmed Moloobhoy, father of Salman Moloobhoy, penned a heart-rending story of the battle to get back the properties from the clutches of Saddam's men. After Gokal's murder and confiscation of AFP properties, Sultan Moloobhoy and Roshanali Nasser knocked at countless doors, in India and in Iraq. They even sought help of Abidali, a former minister in Jawaharlal Nehru's cabinet and the then PM Indira Gandhi. Several consul generals of Iraq in Mumbai, Iraq's ambassadors to India and India's foreign ministers to Iraq were approached. "In 1985, I accompanied Dr Ammar Rizvi (a senior Congress politician from UP) to Iraq and met several ministers, including minister of Awkaf and Religious Affairs in Iraq. Iran-Iraq war was raging and two missiles fell near our hotel. Fortunately we remained unharmed," recalls Roshanali Nasser in the report he penned for the community. Of the over one lakh Khoja Shia population across the world, around 25000 are in Mumbai alone. Most of them are engaged in business and, like other Shias, make pilgrimages to sacred shrines in Iraq and Iran. Built with the donations from philanthropists in the community, the Khoja musafirkhanas have emotional and historical bond with the city. Their redevelopment has received blessings even from Iraq-based Grand Ayatollah Syed Ali Husseini Al Sistani.