In response to questions from his followers about participation in the ceremonies traditionally held during the month of Muharram, the Iraq-Based Grand Ayatollah Sistani has advised partaking through online and television programs and other safer alternatives.
In an edict published by his office on Thursday, the prominent Iraq-based Shiite source of emulation who has many followers in his birth country Iran, urged religious and cultural centers "to encourage the faithful to listen to sermons and eulogists' homilies at their own homes and similar places".
During the month of Muharram millions of Shiites across the world participate in ceremonies and mourning processions to honor the anniversary of the slaying of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad in 626 AD.
Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani, one of the most influential senior clerics among Shiite Muslims, is of Iranian origin but has lived in Iraq since 1951. Ayatollah Sistani's influence among Iranian Shiites has hugely increased since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the opening of Iraqi holy cities of Najaf and Karbala to millions of Iranian pilgrims every year.
More than 4,500 of Iraq's 38 million population have been lost to COVID-19 so far while the death toll in the 82 million strong Iran has reached nearly 17,000 according to the latest figures released by the Health Ministry.
Iran's hardliner establishment in recent days has been adamant that the traditional gatherings must be held despite the coronavirus pandemic and repeated warnings of health officials.
Some Iranian Grand Ayatollahs such as Naser Makarem Shirazi have insisted on holding the mourning ceremonies as usual, albeit with some safety measures in place.
Health authorities have until now said 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.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has yet not made any comments or issued a religious edict on the observance of Muharram rituals in the time of coronavirus. He has personally been in self-isolation since the breakout in February and has not appeared in public except for a meeting last week with the visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.