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Iran Reopens Religious Shrines Two Months After Closing Them Over Pandemic

An Iranian official checks the temperature of visitors at the Shah Abdol-Azim shrine in the capital Tehran, May 25, 2020

Iran has reopened its religious shrines some two months after closing them due to the Middle East’s deadliest coronavirus pandemic.

The shrines were reopened on May 25 amid a gradual easing of restrictions put in place to contain the pandemic, which has killed 7,451 and infected over 137,000, according to official figures. Real numbers are believed to be significantly higher.

The measures come after Iranian President Hassan Rohani said a day earlier that 10 out of the country’s 31 provinces are now in the virus "containment stage.”

Rohani said shrines will be open each day for three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening while observing strict health protocols. The limited reopening of holy sites comes after Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Iran in mid-March closed key holy shrines, including the Imam Reza shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad and Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom, where the first cases of coronavirus were reported in February, following criticism of a slow government response to the pandemic.

Videos posted online by Iranian media on May 25 showed visitors, some wearing masks, running towards the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad while being guided by attendants.

In a statement posted on its website, the shrine said visitors must observe health protocols such as wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and by bringing their own prayer mats and other accessories.

Another video showed the reopening of the Masoumeh shrine in Qom, where there appeared to be a disregard for social distancing rules aimed at preventing the spreading of COVID-19.

The closure of the religious sites visited every year by millions of pilgrims who often touch and kiss the shrines, had triggered protests by hard-liners who attempted to break in into the Imam Reza and Masoumeh shrines.

Museums and historical sites were reopened on May 24.

All government employees working from home must return to their offices on May 30, Rohani said over the weekend.

Sports activities are due to resume without spectators and universities are due to reopen in early June.

COVID-19 has so far killed 7,451 people and infected over 137,000 in Iran, according to the country's Health Ministry.

With reporting by IRNA, Tasnim, AFP, and Reuters