A funeral procession on Oct. 12 for one of the people killed in an attack on a Shiite shrine in Kabul the previous day. (Hedayatullah Amid/European Pressphoto Agency)

 A second deadly attack on Shiite worshipers in two days killed at least 17 people and wounded 36 others when a remote-controlled bomb exploded outside a mosque in northern Afghanistan, as crowds in the capital and elsewhere gathered defiantly to commemorate one of Islam’s holiest days.

The blast near the city of Mazar-e Sharif, home to one of Afghanistan’s most important Shiite shrines, followed a mass-casualty attack Tuesday in Kabul at a Shiite shrine that raised fears of further violence during the Shiite processions and gatherings.

But Shiites refused official appeals to stay off the streets, packing areas in Kabul and elsewhere for events marking Ashura, which commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad who was killed in battle in the 7th century. 

The Islamic State claimed Wednesday that it was involved in orchestrating the Kabul attack, according to the group’s media wing. The United Nations said 19 civilians were killed and more than 50 wounded when an attacker opened fire on Shiite worshipers in the “abhorrent” assault in Kabul on Tuesday night.

Many Sunni-led militant factions, including the Islamic State and the Taliban, consider Shiites part of a heretical branch of Islam. No group has taken responsibility for the Wednesday bombing,


In the capital, the area around the assaulted Karte Sakhi shrine was cordoned off to traffic, and security was extremely heavy. Dozens of uniformed and plainclothes police officers were stationed on every block, and squads of gunmen in trucks circled the ethnic Hazara Shiite district of West Kabul.

In July, suicide bombers from the Islamic State killed 80 people at a peaceful protest by Hazaras in the same community.

Even before Tuesday’s deadly violence, the Afghan government had urged people not to congregate during Ashura and expose themselves to danger. Five years ago, at another shrine in Kabul on Ashura, 70 people were killed in a suicide bombing claimed by a violent Sunni group from Pakistan. 

But on Wednesday, Shiites thronged the streets in acts of quiet and dramatic defiance: pushing baby strollers, wearing sashes saying, “We salute Hussein,” hoisting flags from minivans and bicycles and smearing their cars with red paint to symbolize the blood spilled by Hussein.

“We have zero fear,” said Sayed Abdullah, 20, a geology student wearing a black tunic and green scarf to represent mourning and Islam. “Those who did this are determined to stop our gathering, but they will fail.” 

Like many in the crowd, Abdullah said there was no enmity between Afghan minority Shiites and majority Sunnis, and he accused outside forces of using violence in an attempt to sow sectarian division and hatred.

“There is unity and empathy between us,” he said, adding that students of both sects in his university dorm had read the Koran and passed out alms together this week.

Nasir Alizada, 27, a metal worker, said he was at the rally that was bombed in July, where young Hazaras had gathered to protest discrimination and poor public services to their community. Although the group was left splintered by the attack, it will “continue to struggle for our rights,” he said. “We have no fear of the enemies of Islam.”

Women brought their entire families out for the Ashura events, seemingly unfazed by the previous night’s attack at the Karte Sakhi shrine. The ornately tiled and domed shrine is surrounded by a cemetery and park that is a popular spot for family picnics among Shiites, especially during new year celebrations in March under the calendar followed by Iranians and many other Shiites.

“We are worried that Hazaras will be targeted again, but we still want to take part. We are ready to give our lives,” said a high school senior who gave her name as Roya. She and two friends had visited 12 shrines during the week, she said, and they were on their way to visit Karte Sakhi as well.

Despite the festive air, tension was evident everywhere. Police repeatedly shouted at drivers to keep moving, and mosque security volunteers urged people not to bunch around the charity food stalls and the tents selling colorful posters of Hussein and other historic Shiite figures in heroic poses. 

Drum-pounding chants boomed from loudspeakers, creating a sense of mounting urgency. Later in the day, men and boys would perform ritual self-flagellation in frenzied circles, in symbolic penance for Hussein’s death. But others in the crowd seemed at peace despite the threat of danger.

“This day is very important for us every year, so we cannot worry,” said Mohammed Reza, 56, a shopkeeper. He held hands with his two young grandchildren, both wearing black headdresses, as they moved through the crowds. 

“If there is another attack or explosion, it doesn’t matter,” he added. “We are here to dedicate ourselves to Hussein.”