As Iran prepares to mark important annual Shia religious ceremonies, two health experts have appealed to Iran’s Grand Ayatollahs about their fears that large gatherings could lead to a spike in Covid-19 cases across the country. They propose that the forthcoming Muharram mourning ceremonies be held online.
Arash Alaei and Kamyar Alaei, directors of the International Institute of Health and Education, appealed to Iran’s most revered and powerful religious authorities on July 30. They expressed concern about the 10 days of mourning to mark the martyrdom of Imam Hossein during the month of Muharram, which begins on August 10.
The doctors, who are brothers, have been regularly updating the public about the coronavirus pandemic and ways to prevent its spread throughout communities.
Over the last several weeks, Iranian government officials, clerics, and other authorities have insisted the mourning ceremonies will go ahead, claiming that health protocols have already been put in place, though there is little evidence for this and it contradicts many provincial officials’ calls for bans on gatherings to continue in order to stem the rise of Covid-19. In light of this, the two experts appealed to the ayatollahs, who command considerable influence and power in Iranian political and religious life. "Research on Covid-19 disease shows that even if people have a mask on their face, it is possible for the virus to pass through the mask if they do not observe social distancing,” they wrote. “In other words, gathering in a place with close and inappropriate distance, even if this place is an open space.” They go on to warn that such a gathering could cause “a large number of people” to contract Covid-19. “It should be noted that the death rate from this global disease is [between] one and three percent of the affected population."
They also rejected, on scientific grounds, claims that the events could be conducted safely."Some have suggested using a thermometer or even conducting tests to identify sick people and carriers among participants to gatherings such as mourning and sport events. But research has shown that 30 percent of people with Covid-19 disease have no clinical symptoms to diagnose the disease, and despite their healthy appearance, these people are actually sick and can transfer the Covid-19 disease to others. Also, not all people with Covid-19 have any diagnostic or laboratory symptoms in the early days of the disease. In fact, it takes three days to a week for a person to develop clinical symptoms and for tests to show they have the disease."
After outlining key information about the transmission of Covid-19 and the risks gatherings posed to the public, the doctors’ letter to the religious authorities recommends the religious ceremonies, which last a period of 10 days, take place online. "Since the duty of specialists and researchers in the field of public health is presenting solutions that, while respecting the cultural and religious issues and social needs, also guarantees the collective health, our proposed solution is to perform Muharram ceremonies remotely and virtually.
"In this way, the eulogists and preachers of every site or mosque or neighborhood will mourn these days of Muharram for their dear citizens via apps such as Zoom, Skype, and other available apps, or on social media. Followers can take part in mourning ceremonies remotely in their homes. Preachers and the eulogists will be able to hold the ceremony with magnificence and the general health of the participants in the ceremony will not be endangered."
The Grand Ayatollahs responded to the appeal and the question of whether it was possible to conduct mourning ceremonies remotely.
Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, one of Shia Islam’s most radical clerics, implicitly endorsed the idea of Muharram ceremonies being held online: "There is no doubt that we have principles we cannot abandon in any way; among them is the issue of Muharram and Safar mourning [which will take place in August, late September and early October this year]. Therefore, the authorities must pay good attention to this issue in order to both take into account the religious concerns of the people as well as to maintain their health and safety protocols."
Islamic authority Seyed Ali Fatemi also responded: "The rites of the Ahl al-Bayt and especially the mourning of Seyed al-Shuhada (Imam Hossein) should not be canceled, but should go ahead in accordance with the hygienic protocols and what the experts recommend."
Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani was less forthcoming. "The question is ambiguous,” he answered, without providing any further explanation.
Influential Ayatollah Ali Sistani, based in Najaf, Iraq, said if mourning ceremonies do take place online, there should be a significant boost to their broadcast, both via online platforms and on television networks.
Letters to Rouhani
On the same day, a collective of Iranian medical associations wrote to President Hassan Rouhani warning of the danger of gatherings such as the upcoming mourning ceremonies, as well as the risks posed if university entrance exams were allowed to go ahead as scheduled.
The letter to Rouhani also raised the issue of exhausted and understaffed medical teams that have been working under intense pressure since the beginning of Iran’s outbreak, which officially started in March, though several cases were reported in February. "The danger of a spike in the number of people contracting the disease and the subsequent casualties among the mourners is obvious. The fatigue of the medical staff is also a bad sign,” the letter read.
A letter from medical associations, also signed by prominent Iranian doctors, warned the president of rising number in fatalities from Covid-19. "There are 200 deaths and 2000 cases on a daily basis, but according to some forecasts, if protocols are not followed seriously in the next three months, this number will increase to up to 1600 deaths a day," they wrote.
Following the publication of this letter, President Rouhani attended a National Coronavirus Taskforce meeting, where he recommended mourning ceremonies be virtual: "By taking advantage of new initiatives in line with the country's special circumstances regarding coronavirus, parts of the mourning should be done online." He also urged the public to continue taking precautions: ”A reduction in cautious behavior and in the observance of health protocols will play an important role in increasing the prevalence of this disease.” He added he was hopeful the public’s awareness of the situation and its role in combating the disease would mean the number of Covid-19 cases and victims would continue to decrease.
Prior to these statements, Rouhani had insisted that religious ceremonies would go ahead, even in areas on emergency alert, and suggested the faithful could not make a decision between health and religious duty. "The Ashura culture is a factor in resisting the enemy," he said at a meeting of the National Coronavirus Taskforce Headquarters on July 25. The speech prompted criticism from health experts, but his claims were repeated by eulogists and senior clerics.
The Muharram ceremonies mourn the death of the third Shia Imam and begin 10 days before the anniversary of his death. The last ceremony falls on the day of his death, and is traditionally the most important religious occasion of the season, and one of the most significant rituals for Shia Muslims. Devotees distribute food to the poor, and some take part in self-flagellation. Traditionally it attracts large crowds across the country.
Health experts have repeatedly expressed fears about this year’s ceremonies, and have increased more stark warnings in recent days, not least because many provinces are experiencing spikes in coronavirus cases and fatalities. While many will welcome the Grand Ayatollahs’ apparent acceptance of the idea of mourning ceremonies going online, as well as President Rouhani’s acknowledgment that it might be safer, preparations to mark the ceremonies in the traditional way — with large crowds — are underway in Tehran and other cities in Iran.