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Iran 'Mourning Groups' Unhappy With Strict Coronavirus Measures Restricting Month-Long Ceremonies

IRAN -- Iranian Shi'ite Muslims burn a tent during the reenactment of the Battle of Karbala, in Tehran, September 10, 2019

Some religious mourning groups in Iran have criticized health authorities for imposing "too-strict" measures that seriously restrict the month-long ceremonies during the Islamic month of Muharram this year.

The National Corornavirus Combat Taskforce has banned holding any ceremonies indoors, requiring participants in outdoor venues to wear masks and keep a two-meter distance from others. The duration of the ceremonies, which usually start in the morning and last until at night, has been limited to two hours.

On Friday, the Center for Management of Mosques in Tehran announced that due to the decision of the National Coronavirus Combat Taskforce, they will not allow any ceremonies in mosques, despite their criticisms of the taskforce's decisions.

Every year during the lunar month of Muharram, the beginning of which fell on August 20 this year, thousands of local mourning groups known as hey'at organize large congregations and processions with thousands of participants. They mourn the anniversary of the slaying of Imam Husayn and his 72 companions in 680 AD in a battle that took place in the plain of Karabala in present-day Iraq.

Thousands of others usually gather along the streets to watch the procession of men rhythmically beating their chests or using a bundle of chains to beat their backs to the beat of massive drums amplified by speakers. The drums and street processions have also been banned.

Leaders of some ultra-religious mourning groups, non-clerics who often wield considerable political influence, have criticized health authorities for imposing the restrictions, saying they will ignore them.

Saeed Hadadian, a notorious religious eulogist (or “maddah,”) said last month that the ceremonies need to be held with as much splendor as possible, even if that led to death of people.

"There are people who are willing to sacrifice their lives for these ceremonies," he said, declaring that he would "under any circumstances" set his mourning procession in motion in the streets of the capital.

In clear defiance of the regulations, another notorious maddah, Mahmoud Karimi, rode in a small truck along streets lined with spectators and broadcast his mourning songs from speakers on the first night of Muharram.

However, these citizens’ usual defiance of regulations and notoriety may not be tolerated this year. Top religious leaders, including the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have said that the decisions of the Coronavirus Combat Taskforce must be obeyed.

Other high-ranking leaders have ordered their followers to find new ways of holding the ceremonies without congregating and putting each other's lives in danger.

To encourage people to stay home, the state-run television has planned many special programs with the mourning theme, and the Ministry of Telecommunications has announced that it will provide a month of free internet to mourning groups to facilitate "virtual mourning.”

Many smaller mourning groups have cancelled their ceremonies, while some larger ones have rented open spaces like amusement parks, installed huge TV screens and even supplied small rugs to establish "safe distances" in between participants.

On Thursday, the Fararu news website quoted Mohsen Mobaraki, the leader of a mourners' group, as saying that in the 7,000 square meter outside space where they will be holding their ceremony, participants' temperature and blood oxygen levels will be tested on arrival. "All this has tripled our expenses," he said.

The month-long mourning ceremonies, the highlight of which is the Day of Ashura, have been held for centuries in Iran and among Shiites in other countries. However, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and state support, the ceremonies and rituals have gained more importance.

Even under the Shah, who was very proud of being the ruler of the only Shiite state in the world, the country was shut down for several days for the ceremonies and Ashura sermons were broadcast live on the national radio.

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    Maryam Sinaiee

    Maryam Sinaiee is a British-Iranian journalist, political analyst and former correspondent of The National, who contributes to Radio Farda.