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To Weep Or Not To Weep: Iran Debates Holding Muharram During Coronavirus Pandemic

Iran -- Shi'ite Muslims beat themselves as they walk around a symbolic tomb at a mosque during a religious festival marking Ashura, near Tehran's grand bazaar October 24, 2015.

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Despite an upsurge in coronavirus infections in Iran and a ban on weddings and large funerals, the country's famed gatherings of mourners during the Shi’ite month of Muharram will be held.

The controversial decision was announced earlier this week by Iranian President Hassan Rohani amid speculation he would fall to pressure by hard-liners who oppose any limits on religious ceremonies and closing shrines due to the pandemic.

Rohani, who said the Muharram commemorations “cannot be cancelled,” added that all gatherings must be held in line with health protocols.

“We want to mourn and not infect the mourners of Imam Hussain,” he said, suggesting that the gatherings that attract thousands will be limited, especially those held in closed spaces.

Muharram -- the first month of the Islamic calendar -- honors the martyrdom of Imam Husain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who was slain in a battle in Karbala in the year 680. Believers commemorate his death during religious rituals -- that include singing, passion plays, and chest beatings in mosques and on the street -- that reach a peak on the ninth and 10th day of Muharram known as Tasua and Ashura. People are encouraged to cry or weep during the ceremonies to show their sadness.

Rohani’s announcement was met with criticism by health experts and others who worry that the gatherings that attract large crowds could spark another surge in infections.

"This decision should be commended if it is possible to combine Muharram mourning and observance of health protocols, but unfortunately this is not possible,” the editor of the conservative Jomhuri Eslami daily, Hojatoleslam Masih Mohajeri, wrote.

Mohajeri added that in the name of religion, the life of citizens was being put in danger.

Minoo Mohraz (eds. a woman), a physician who specializes in infectious diseases and is a member of Iran’s task force to combat the coronavirus, warned that Muharram gatherings would be “dangerous.”

“Those who have not been infected so far -- and the ban on gatherings had prevented them from being infected -- could contract [the virus] by holding these gatherings,” Mohraz, who earlier this year tested positive for the coronavirus, said on July 26.

“The coronavirus is only being transmitted in wedding ceremonies…. Otherwise during Muharram mourning, the virus stands in a corner, beats its chest and weeps,” Twitter user Aghbahman said in mocking the decision.

Others insisted that Muharram commemorations must take place despite the pandemic that has killed more than 16,500 and infected some 300,000 in Iran.

The Health Ministry has in past weeks reported nearly 200 deaths on a daily basis, which marks an increase in fatalities compare to previous months. The official death toll on July 30 stood at 226 while 2,621 new cases were confirmed.

“We have some principles that we cannot give up at all, including mourning in Muharram,” Qom-based Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi was quoted as saying on July 28 by the official news agency IRNA.

He added that authorities should make sure that both people’s religious concerns and health protocols are taken into consideration.

Hard-line cleric Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts, said on July 30 that mosques, shrines, and religious ceremonies have been involved in the lowest spread of the coronavirus while most cases have been transmitted within public transport and at weddings.

He gave no statistics to support that claim.

“This means religious people are leading in this field and respecting health protocols,” Khatami said.

“Even if we die, we will hold this year’s Muharram ceremonies splendidly,” Saeed Haddadian, a prominent eulogist, or "maddah," who performs for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quoted as saying earlier this week by Iranian media.

Some maddahs with large followings are believed to be receive generous fees for their performances that help galvanize support for state policies.

The country’s anti-coronavirus taskforce announced some guidelines this week for the Muharram gatherings, including mourning ceremonies in closed spaces, which will be allowed only on specific days and at limited hours.

In authorized places, mourning gatherings can take place only by observing certain rules, including reduced hours, respecting social-distancing protocols, and the use of masks, the task force said.

Health Minister Saeed Namaki said on July 29 that Iran’s Muharram ceremonies will be “a model” for Shi’a Muslims in other countries.

“We want to record in history that we commemorated Imam Hussain…and introduced a lasting and exemplary model to the world,” Namaki said in a meeting with a group of eulogists and preachers.

Amid the debate about Muharram’s gatherings, many have also expressed concern about university entrance tests due to be held in late August.

Mohraz, the physician, this week called on the government to delay the tests or hold them in an open space under tight social-distancing rules.

“In closed spaces, the virus can be transmitted even with face masks,” she said, warning that the pandemic has peaked in many cities and provinces, including the capital, Tehran.

Millions more could become infected, she warned.

The board of Iran’s Medical Associations also warned in a letter on July 30 that the country’s COVID-19 death toll could climb to 1,600 a day if mass gatherings -- including university entrance exams and Muharram ceremonies -- are allowed to be held.

Iran has been struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic since February, when the first cases -- two deaths -- were confirmed in the holy city of Qom.

Restrictions imposed in February and March aimed at controlling the outbreak, the worst in the Middle East, were quickly eased amid concerns over the economy, which is already under immense pressure due to crippling U.S. sanctions imposed after Washington unilaterally exited the landmark 2015 nuclear deal Iran signed with six world powers.

Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi said on July 29 that 26 of the country’s 31 provinces are facing dangerous or alarming levels of risk due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Seventy-two million live in provinces where an alarming situation exists,” said Harirchi, who was infected by has since recovered from COVID-19.