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IRAQ: The ayatollah gets hacked


Shiite Muslims who check Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's website, sistani.org, for advice on everything from chess to sex were in for a shock today. Hackers attacked the site of the spiritual guide to millions of Shiites and slapped a video showing comedian Bill Maher poking fun at Sistani's advice-giving on the home page.

A group calling itself Group-XP claimed responsibility, according to a statement on the hacked site, which normally invites visitors to write in with questions on what is permitted under Shiism, and to get advice on how to be a better Muslim. Sistani is Iraq's most revered Shiite religious leader and though he stays mostly out of politics, his words hold immense sway.

Iran's Fars News Agency said the hackers had shut down about 300 Shiite websites and were Sunnis based in the United Arab Emirates. It described the attack as the most serious of its kind in years.

For several hours, visitors to the Sistani site were greeted with what appeared to be a video of the white-bearded cleric and a statement written in red lettering scrolling down the screen. "Did you think you were alone on the Internet and nobody was capable of hacking your site?" the statement reads. It went on to make fun of Sistani and his sexual pronouncements, referring to him as Sextani and urging people to click on the video.

That launched several minutes of Maher joking about the site's advice on what is haram, or forbidden, and what is allowed. Chess is deemed haram, apparently because it requires so much mental concentration that players are distracted from thinking about anything else, including prayer. Backgammon also is not permitted, nor are most forms physical contact between unmarried men and women.

Late Friday, the site was off-line altogether, or so it seemed. But the incident generated chatter among Arabic-language websites, and one cyber sleuth wrote that the hack was not successful the world over. The writer said the site had been redirected, not hacked, and that if readers went to and did not use the domain name, it would work. Indeed, it did. 

There was no reaction from Sistani, who rarely speaks publicly and almost never talks to the media. The last time he met with reporters was last month, when Sistani summoned some journalists to his home to refute reports he was gravely ill.

— Tina Susman and Caesar Ahmad in Baghdad

Image: Screen shot from Sistani.org

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