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Sunni vs. Shiite: Islamic Militants' Key Questions About Prayer and Religious Practice Could Spell Life or Death for Iraqis

FILE - This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf petro-powerhouses encouraged a flow of cash to Sunni rebels in Syria for years. But now they face a worrying blowback as an al-Qaida breakaway group that benefited from some of the funding storms across a wide swath of Iraq. Gulf nations fear its extremism could be a threat to them as well. But the tangle of rivalries in the region is complex: Saudi Arabia and its allies firmly oppose any U.S. military action to stop the Islamic State’s advance in Iraq because they don’t want to boost its Shiite-led prime minister or his ally, Iran. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File) AP Photo/Militant Website, File\n

As Islamic militants continue their siege in Iraq in pursuit of a Muslim state, extremists are reportedly posing specific questions to citizens they capture — queries that could mean life or death, depending on the responses they give.

Consider that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — a militant group that has allegedly killed scores of Iraqis and captured land in the western and northern portions of the country — is reportedly singling out Shiites in a murderous rampage, as the New York Times has noted.

At the heart of the matter is ISIS's overarching goal of creating a massive Islamic state, but the targeting of specific Muslims for execution is a tactical issue rooted in centuries of sectarian strife that has raged between the two main Islamic sects: Sunni and Shiite.

Iraqi Turkmen forces patrol a checkpoint in the northern town of Taza Khormato, 20 kms south of Kirkuk, on June 21, 2014, close to locations of jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters. Sunni militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took control of an Iraq-Syria border crossing after Syrian rebels withdrew overnight, security officers and witnesses said. (AFP PHOTO/KARIM SAHIB)

According to survivors who have escaped ISIS, radicals have asked some key questions to their victims in an effort to figure out which of the two sects they belong to. Before we get into those queries, let's briefly examine the differences between Sunnis and Shiites.

The theological differences held by the two groups date back to the founding of the faith. Sectarian strife began after the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632 A.D., as there was a split when it came to who was considered the subsequent leader of the faith.

Shiites, as they came to be known, believed that descendants of Muhammad deserved to become Islamic leaders. At the time of his death, they believed his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, was the rightful heir, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

On the other side, though, were the Sunnis, who believed that anyone could lead Muslims, regardless of whether they were related to the prophet. These individuals favored Abu Bakr, a man who had married into Muhammad's family, but who was not tied to him by blood.

Iraqi Turkmen pose with their weapons as they ready to fight against militants led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on June 21, 2014, in the Iraqi village of Bashir, 15 kilometers south of the city of Kirkuk. Iraqi security forces on Saturday announced they were holding their own in several areas north of Baghdad, but officials said insurgents led by ISIL seized one of three official border crossings with Syria. (MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images)

These differences have sparked intense debate over the centuries, sometimes leading to deadly sectarian strife. Over time, the Shiite view has become a minority perspective, with Sunnis accounting for the vast majority of Muslim adherents around the globe.

As the New York Times reported, ISIS violently opposes Shiites and is seizing upon religious differences to ask some key questions in an effort to figure out who they should execute.

Among the queries, they ask for individuals' names. Since Shiites believe that Muhammad's rightful heir to leadership should be in his bloodline, if radicals come across individuals named after the prophet's relatives, they assume those individuals are Shiites who were named in their honor.

ISIS militants are also reportedly asking where their victims live, as certain neighborhoods are known to be heavily Shiite; individuals from these areas are purportedly more likely to be killed.

Then there are questions about religious practices that further separate the two groups. Something as simple as the placement of hands during prayer could lead militants to murder a victim.

FILE - This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)

Consider, as the Times noted, that Sunnis usually fold their hands or cross their arms over their stomachs during prayer; Shiites leave their arms extended and place their palms on their thighs.

Sunnis and Shiites also have different religious songs they revere, leading to ringtones and songs that could tip off militants as to which sect one belongs to.

These factors clearly place Iraqis — and particularly Shiites — in an immensely difficult spot. Even if they choose to lie about their sect allegiance, it's possible they make an error or miss a cue and, in exchange, lose their lives.

But considering that many people aren't willing to deny their theological views, some Iraqis' fates are tragically sealed. Read TheBlaze's continued coverage of the Iraq crisis here.

(H/T: New York Times)

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