On the eve of Ramadan, pressure was mounting on the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the National Headquarters for Combating Coronavirus to reopen religious sites and allow them to resume their ordinary activity.
The controversial closures of the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad and the Masoumeh Shrine in Qom, as well as the cessation of religious programs up and down the country, have again been brought to the fore in the run-up to the holy month.
Last week Rouhani clarified that the seminary had asked him to review the conditions on people attending holy places. Rouhani said the government planned to reopen religious sites from May 21, but at the request of Alireza Arafi, Iran’s director of seminaries, the plan will be reviewed on Monday, May 4.
Arafi is one of the most powerful and influential clerics in Qom, a city long considered Iran’s most important religious center. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, key religious institutions and representatives in Qom Province have seen their activities brought to a standstill.
In Mashhad, meanwhile, the second most important religious center in Iran, religious activity around the Imam Reza Shrine has been stopped: to the disquiet of Ahmad Alam al-Hoda, Mashhad’s leader of Friday sermons.
As far back as April 10, al-Hoda said: “We hope that our loved ones at the National Headquarters for Combating Coronavirus will think about reopening the holy shrine of Razavi, perhaps with the special protocols that they are considering."
Just days after these remarks, Ahmad Marvi, custodian of Astan Quds Razavi (AQR) – the biggest religious endowment fund in the Islamic world – announced that AQR had prepared instructions to facilitate the reopening of religious sites. He added that the guidance had been prepared “with the coordination of the Ministry of Health”. The guardians of four of the country's most important pilgrimage centers – Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, Masoumeh Shrine and Jamkaran Mosque in Qom, and the Abdolazim Shrine in Rey, Tehran province, Shah Abdol Al-Azim Mosque, four important pilgrimage centers in the country – are all preparing to reopen.
Meanwhile Iran’s Center for Mosque Affairs, the Friday Prayer Institute and other religious umbrella organizations have said while they want to resume their activities, they are subject to the directives of the National Headquarters for Combating Coronavirus.
The holy month of Ramadan is now under way in Iran. For the time being, Rouhani’s administration is limiting public worship and gatherings. Only those ceremonies held by official government institutions are likely to go ahead: and for the time being, these will be televised instead.
According to IRNA News Agency, the government is directing people to remain indoors and not attend public gatherings for Laylat al-Qadr: a night in the month of Ramadan when Muslims believe the Almighty revealed the first verses of the Quran to the prophet, which this year falls on May 19.
Giti Khazaei, a family sociologist and social policy activist, warned that many Ramadan rituals, parties and iftar gatherings would be held out of sight. She told IRNA: "Obviously the government cannot impose strict restrictions on religious ceremonies in homes, and it cannot appoint agents to go to people's homes to prevent them from holding religious gatherings, especially on Laylat al-Qadr.
"Despite creating an isolated programming environment, the government and the National Headquarters for Combating Coronavirus have not yet launched extensive educational activities to internalize good healthcare practices and a new lifestyle suitable for living in the coronavirus era.”
Khazaei is far from alone in criticizing the Iranian government’s haphazard approach to crisis management over the past two months. The hesitance to impose a public shutdown and rigid quarantine measures isrooted in the fear of worsening the economic situation. But at the same time, high-ranking religious institutions as well as conservative opposition figures are weighing in in a manner that prevents the government from taking proper decisive action.
Thus far, these individuals and entities have abided by the decisions of the National Headquarters for Combating Coronavirus because of their support for Ali Khamenei. Religious trustees and clerics have also shut down activities against their will in the name of “religious rationality”.
But with the arrival of Ramadan this rationality is beginning to wane. The same individuals also want the religious market to be open for business: during Ramadan, a period of heavy visitor traffic to religious sites, donations to these centers also tend to increase.
Fearing the loss of a golden window of opportunity, these institutions have now prepared a set of “scientific” instructions to begin work in this month, albeit in a limited way. Given the widespread nature of coronavirus in Iran and the lack of facilities to fight it and treat patients, it is not yet clear how effective these guidelines would be.