The Islamic Republic of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared undecided on the sensitive issue of reopening busy religious sites and shrines during a meeting of the COVID-19 Control Task Force on Sunday May 10.
This was Khamenei's first presence at a meeting of the task force since its inception in February, though virtually and via video teleconference. Some Iranian pundits have commented that Khamenei is the only person in the country who observes strict social distancing.
Running with hares and hunting with hounds, Khamenei expressed support for the country’s top health officials who are against the reopening of Shiite shrines for safety concerns, but at the same time said that "those who understand the truth about praying and resorting to saints" should be consulted about the matter.
He was utterly undecided whether to support hardliner clerics around him who have been demanding the reopening of the shrines since February or to stand with health officials who believe this is against public health as long as the epidemic is claiming lives.
Apparently fearing that he would be blamed for the loss of lives if things do not work out well, Khamenei said: "I have absolutely no suggestion about reopening or not reopening of the shrines and will submit to the views of the experts in the task force and will do as they say."
Nevertheless, he highlighted the importance of prayers, particularly during the month of Ramadan. "People need to pray and appeal to the saints."
This comes while Mohammad Mehdi Mirzaei, the hardliner cleric who chairs the Islamic Knowledge Academy said on Sunday that "over-rating the threat of the epidemic is a conspiracy by enemies."
Mirzaei told Fars news agency that the coronavirus epidemic is part of "the clash of civilizations" instigated by secular Western powers against Islam and Muslims.
Khamenei’s meeting was, as usual, attended by President Hassan Rouhani and his ministers, and joined by local governors via video links.
Currently, the health minister's verdict is to open the courtyard of the shrines by the end of Ramadan, but to keep the actual shrines closed fearing further spread of the virus in overcrowded indoor areas.
Debates about reopening religious sites and holy shrines and resuming religious gatherings have escalated during the past week with the start of Ramadan. President Rouhini had said earlier that the plan was to reopen them by mid-May but he said based on a request by the Dean of the Qom seminary, the reopening might be brought forward.
Nonetheless, although Rouhani has announced that congregational prayers can be resumed in 132 "COVID-19 free towns," reports indicate that at least in one place, Kellard in Mazandaran Province no one attended the Friday prayers although lockdown regulations were lifted.
Debate over the reopening of religious sites continued Sunday while according to public authorities in Tehran the epidemic is returning to its peak. ISNA quoted Ali Maher, a senior health official in the capital as saying that "the people have ignored the warnings, and the epidemic is on an ascending course once again in many cities including Tehran."
Officials keep blaming the people, although it is Rouhani who has been against total lockdown and appears to be in a hurry to lift the partial lockdown as he is worried about the impact on the economy.
In the meantime, the government keeps gradually ending the lockdown and ordering the resumption of activities by various businesses. Rouhani has said that schools in Iran reopen next week but students' presence is not mandatory. "They can go to school if they want to ask a question from their teachers," he said.
According to the latest official reports 6,640 Iranians have lost their lives as a result of the pandemic and 107,603 people have contracted the virus as of Sunday May 10. However, international observers and some Iranian officials have said the actual figures are much higher.