Defying religious leaders who have called on the faithful to pray for deliverance from the coronavirus epidemic, the virus continues to claim victims in the holy city of Qom where the first infections and deaths happened and where both the number of infections and fatalities continues to rise rapidly. The clergy is keen to continue religious ceremonies and religious sites open – whereas health experts believe such ceremonies and gatherings can contribute significantly to the spread of virus.

On Sunday, February 23, Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, member of parliament for Qom, claimed that infections in the city had started three weeks ago and has so far claimed 50 lives, suggesting a cover-up by the Ministry of Health. Ministry officials rejected this claim and demanded Farahani’s resignation.

“I categorically deny this information," Health Minister Iraj Harirchi told a news conference, vowing to resign if it could be proven that even half that number had died.

Bahram Sarmast, Qom’s provincial governor, refused to confirm or deny Farahani’s numbers and said that the figure may include all fatalities from diseases such as influenza and coronavirus [Persian link] and not necessarily only from coronavirus.

According to government officials, coronavirus infections were first detected in Qom last Wednesday, February 19, spreading rapidly to eight other provinces. But until as recently as two days ago, influential clerics were against closing many religious sites. There were initial reports that restrictions had been imposed on pilgrimages to the shrine of the Shia saint Fatimah al-Masoumeh; the custodians of the shrine not only denied these reports, but also explained them away with conspiracy theories.

“The dirty, villainous and wicked Trump wants to strike a blow on Qom’s culture and reputation by using the excuse of coronavirus,” said [Persian link] Mohammad Saidi, guardian of the Masoumeh Shrine. “By using this method, the enemy wants to spread terror, portray Qom as an unsafe city and exact revenge on Qom for all his [enemy’s] defeats. The treacherous Trump and his domestic mercenaries will take this wish to their graves.”

“What is the necessity of closing down the shrine?” said Saidi’s advisor, Ali Akbar Hosseininejad, in response to calls for closing down the site. “Even if it becomes necessary to close down the shrine, it would be up to the provincial security council or the Supreme National Security Council.”


Prayer as Disinfectant

Five days later, however, their resistance broke down [Persian link] and by order of Qom province’s security council, collective prayers and religious ceremonies were banned inside the shrine and barriers were placed around the site. This order was issued when, contrary to statements by a number of religious authorities, coronavirus was found to have infected many in Qom and spread to other cities. Instead of advising people to take the advice of health officials seriously, these religious authorities advised them to recite prayers.

One of them was Ayatollah Hossein Vahid Khorasani, who told his followers that, to fight coronavirus, “Every day put your hand over your heart and recite the Hamd Surah seven times [Persian link].. Also, every day in the morning and at night, recite the Throne Verse [255th verse of the 2nd surah of the Quran] seven times Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi gave similar advice to this own followers.

These recommendations – and others like them – have not stopped the spread of coronavirus in Qom and calls for quarantining the whole province have been increasing each day. But despite the danger, some collective religious activities are continuing in Qom and some seminary students are participating in them.

“Some seminary scholarly centers believe they are exempt [Persian link] from the rules issued by Qom’s Health Department and the governor’s office and still force their scholars, most of whom are elderly, to attend these centers,” said the website Qom News. “One of the buildings of this center was closed, to be disinfected, but the scholars have yet to be told to not go there.”


Doctors Take Flight

What is equally alarming is the wave of specialist doctors who have left Qom. “A shortage of specialists [Persian link] is the main problem for patients in Qom,” reported Qom News. “Most of the doctors in Qom have taken flight.” In parliament, representative Farahani implicitly confirmed these reports by talking about four specialist doctors who had escaped from Qom hospitals in recent days.

Qom residents are in a critical situation. According to some reports, 250 people in the city have been quarantined, but the opposition of religious institutions and leading religious figures has prevented the health ministry’s preventive measures from having a proper effect.

According to the website Feghahat, seminary classes, gatherings and centers in Qom have been closed. But some seminary offices insist that students pay their tuition fees in person [Persian link]. “To prevent the spread of the virus, officials changed the date for paying tuition fees from February 25 to February 29. But they refused to completely discard their outdated tradition and, for at least a month, to try modern electronic deposits for receiving tuition fees,” the site said.

In a video posted to social media, a cleric criticizes those pilgrims who take sanitary precautions at Masoumeh Shrine [Persian video]. He tells his audience that he saw a pilgrim using a handkerchief when touching the fence around the saint’s gravesite and this, according to him, was an insult to the holy shrine.

The religious resistance to preventive measures is not limited to Qom. Every year for three days, many Iranian cities hold a religious ceremony called Iʿtikāf, during which participants must stay in mosques and other places of worship and dedicate themselves to prayer. After repeated warnings against such gatherings, some provinces, including Qom, canceled the ceremony. But the custodians of the Imam Reza shrine in the holy city of Mashhad have opposed the cancellation.

It is not clear how long religious authorities will resist preventive measures against the spread of coronavirus. Will they agree to cancel collective religious ceremonies and close religious sites and shrines? Or will they wait until the situation turns into an undeniable calamity?


Related Coverage:

50 Coronavirus Deaths in Iran’s Clerical Center, 24 February 2020

Students Call for University Closure Until Norooz, 24 February 2020

People Afraid to Leave Home Because of Coronavirus, 24 February 2020

Iranian Medical Professionals Confess They Are not Prepared to Handle Coronavirus, 24 February 2020

Iran Suspends All Sports Events Fearing Spread of Coronavirus, 24 February 2020

Coronavirus Brings Iran to a Halt, 23 February 2020

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