The Director-General of Islamic Propaganda in Khorasan Razavi province has said religious authorities cannot afford to host Shia mourning ceremonies in the open air despite a fifth surge of coronavirus in Iran.

Hadi Sahebgharani told Iranian media on Friday that due to high inflation, it would be too costly to erect scaffolding and lay carpets outside during the holy month of Muharram. The month sees believers attend thousands-strong ceremonies to mourn the death of Imam Hussein in 680AD.

“Scaffolding cannot currently be found in Mashhad,” Sahebgharani said, “and this has become a problem. Also, rent of a carpet… amounts to 10 million tomans ($378) for ten nights. At this price, how many carpets would we be able to rent to hold ceremonies outdoors for 10 nights? In this situation, we should thank the mourners for agreeing to go into the open spaces and enduring the hardships."

He cited recent remarks by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei, on the importance of holding mourning ceremonies despite the pandemic.

“A lot of information and explanations issue from the pulpits and shrines on maintaining health and hygiene,” he said. “Also, in addition to the fact that we must observe hygienic matters, we must supplicate to God and seek help from the Infallibles [the 12 Shia Imams, the Prophet Muhammad and his daughter Fatima].

“Our people believe that if they go to the shrine of Imam Reza, they will drink water with the intention of healing. And we cannot abandon our beliefs."

Earlier this week videos circulated online showing large crowds led by Mashhad’s Al-Reza Alamdar delegation packed at close quarters at an indoor Moharram event, violating Covid-19 restrictions. Sahebgharani said members of the board had been "severely dealt with" over the incident.

Mehdi Akbari, the eulogist of this delegation, said in his last public statement on Friday, August 13: "I believe that there is no disease in the shrine of the martyrs. The people have been healed so far, and no-one has fallen ill. This is my belief, and no-one has the right to mock our beliefs."

He then proclaimed that if the Iranian authorities were genuinely concerned about people’s health they should be delivering them with Covid-19 vaccines.

After videos of unsafe mourning ceremonies emerged in both Tehran and Mashhad, Iran’s Minister of Interior banned all indoor events and street processions.

Mashhad Covid Lead: City is ‘Surrounded’

Dr. Alireza Sedaghat, head of the special coronavirus ward at Mashhad’s Imam Reza Hospital, compared coronavirus to a “zombie” that would infect anyone who stepped into the street.

Mashhad “is now like a surrounded army,” he said. “What different does it make whether the mistake was made by the commander, by the soldiers or by me? The situation is bad and the medical team is squeezed. The cure for Covid-19 is not in the hospital but in prevention. We need just two weeks [of lockdown] to put this situation behind us.”

“While the official number of Covid fatalities announced by Mashhad University of Medical Sciences is 80,” he added, “we have to multiply this three or 3.5 times over. The [daily] number of people being buried at Behesht-e Reza, one of the two cemeteries in Mashhad, is 200 to 210.”

The problem, he said, was that Covid-19 patients were only going to hospital when they were already in a grave condition. Up to 40 percent of those admitted to Ghaem and Imam Reza hospitals in Mashhad die within 24 to 36 hours.

Earlier, Dr. Sedaghat had also called for a total ban on religious gatherings  - especially the Muharram mourning ceremonies. These events tend to be bigger and more crowded in Mashhad than elsewhere.

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