As the coronavirus crisis in Iran shows no sign of abating, the clerical rulers have to decide what to do with upcoming religious ceremonies that are highly important for the regime both ideologically and in terms of financial interests of hardliners.
As the mourning month of Muharram is approaching fast, medical and public health experts in Iran oppose busy religious congregations, while hardliners including those at the conservative-dominated Judiciary insist that religious gatherings should be held, albeit with a degree of care for safety of the congregants.
Speaking against the Ministry of Heath's attestation, Judiciary Spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said on Tuesday 28 July "Our faithful people can hold prayers and congregations while observing hygienic rules."
On the same day, Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi insisted that crowded Muharram rituals and mourning ceremonies should be held during the month which starts on 21 August.
This comes while Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raeesi said on Tuesday the ministry is against holding crowded congregations particularly indoors. He warned that not observing the preventive protocols will worsen the pandemic crisis.
Raeesi added that Iranians cannot observe all the religious rituals the same way they did in previous years. "Indoor congregations are strictly prohibited," he said.
Health Minister Saeed Namaki also called on everyone "to take coronavirus seriously."
The conflicting remarks come as the COVID-19 death toll is rising. Some 235 people died in Iran as a result of coronavirus infection on Monday. This includes Seyyed Javad Ayatollahi, the Friday Prayer Imam of Yazd in central Iran and Professor Badrozaman Qarib, a renowned woman of letters among many others.
The rising death toll which has offcially surpassed 16,000 has returned lockdown regulations to many places as 12 Provinces have declared a state of red alert and health warnings have been issued in another 13 provinces.
Earlier, President Hassan Rouhani had said in controversial remarks that "Mourning rituals should be held even in areas where red alert warnings have been issued." He further claimed that religious congregations have not led to the spread of COVID-19.
Rouhani's statement was strongly criticized and he was reminded that he called for shutting down the holy shrines in Qom and Mashad when the pandemic started.
Meanwhile, amid strong protests by traditional media and on social media, the Rouhani administration is adamant to hold the university entrance exams where millions of students have to mingle for a few days. However, despite the health risks, without entrance exams "the business of education" cannot continue in the next academic year that starts in late September when two million new students start spending money as an investment for their future.
Religious congregations in Muharram have strong political and financial significance for the government and its hardliner supporters. Financial considerations are also valid about university entrance exams.
Traditionally, the government sends hardliner insiders to all over the country to seize the opportunity of Muharram gatherings to spread the government's ideological message.
Observers have said on social media that tens of billions of rials are involved in holding religious rituals during Muharram. Just as one example, eulogists who mobilize crowds for mourning make between 20 to 30 million rials for a routine performance that lasts around an hour. It may not be significant when converted into U.S. dollars, but the amount is about twice as much a government employee would earn in a month.
Furthermore, organizations such as the Municipality of Tehran are known for spending hundreds of billions of rials during the month facilitating huge mourning rituals that need accommodation, transportation, and catering. Most of this money circulates among circles of hardliners in various neighborhoods.
Health authorities say rituals this year may be observed only "for short periods of time, along with social distancing and sanitization while everyone wears face masks." There are also hygienic concerns about the food that is usually offered to those who take part.
Meanwhile, Mohammad Javad Haji Ali Akbari the man in charge of holding Friday Prayer rituals in Iran said on Tuesday that after several months, Friday Prayers have been resumed in around 400 Iranian cities and town where there is no red alert.