Iran Struggles with ‘Social Distancing’ as Radical Clerics Prompt Mobs at Islamic Shrines

People gather outside the closed doors of the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Iran's holy city of Qom on March 16 2020. - Iran closed four key Shiite pilgrimage sites across the Islamic republic on March 16 in line with measures to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, state media …
MEHDI MARIZAD/AFP via Getty

Radical Shiite clerics in Iran have escalated their pressure on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to keep the nation’s largest holy shrines open – where kissing and touching the shrines is common – putting the Islamic regime in a precarious situation after one of its most prominent doctors warned on Tuesday that millions could die of Chinese coronavirus infection.

Khamenei himself has repeatedly downplayed the threat of the outbreak in the country, which is part of a global pandemic that began in Wuhan, central China, in November, but the Chinese Communist Party hid from the public until late January. In early March, Khamenei said in public remarks that the virus was “not such a big tragedy and this country has surmounted graver ones.”

Khamenei also said that a national “jihad” against the virus could stop it quickly.

The Islamic regime has also repeatedly accused the United States of inventing the virus and using it in a biological attack against Iran, a line that Beijing has also taken up despite no evidence linking the virus to America in any way, other than U.S. cases brought to the country by travelers from China and countries with ties to China.

Presumably responding to Khamenei’s lack of concern, devout Shiite Muslims enthusiastically shared videos of themselves kissing and licking shrines two weeks ago, insisting that they felt safe from the outbreak due to their faith.

At that point, the Iranian government maintained that the number of deaths caused by the virus was still in the hundreds, though dissident groups like the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) put the real death toll at over 5,000. Clandestinely recorded videos from within mortuaries showed growing piles of bodies that officials did not know how to handle; satellite footage revealed giant mass graves being dug to hide the true number of dead.

Iran has denied the existence of mass graves, despite the satellite image evidence.

The World Health Organization (WHO) verified that the true death toll in Iran may be five times higher than official statistics show on Tuesday. Currently, Iran claims to have documented 1,135 deaths caused by Chinese coronavirus and 17,361 cases total. It claims over 5,000 of those diagnosed have since recovered, but doctors have no concrete proof that recovery grants immunity and many cases have arisen nationwide of people suddenly becoming sick again and dying following their release from the hospital.

Tehran attempted to end the dangerous shrine visits on Monday, announcing that the three holiest sites for Shiite Muslims in Iran would be off-limits, including those in Qom, considered a holy city and the epicenter of the Iranian coronavirus outbreak. The provisions resulted in two separate mob scenes at two of the three shrines, where agitated groups of devotees pushed through the government barriers to continue kissing and licking the shrines.

According to Radio Farda, a pro-regime imam led one group of radicals, while another cleric who opposes the regime for being insufficiently Islamic led the other. The dozens of people joining the mob – no estimates as to just how many people stormed the shrines – argued that the shrines had healing powers that could protect them from the virus and keeping them from accessing these powers was dangerous.

“The protesters who believe the shrines have great healing powers, charged that the government was following ‘anti-religion advice of the World Health Organization,'” Radio Farda noted, describing the two groups involved:

Before it became too obvious that pro-regime fanatics were involved in the incidents in the shrines, the regime media tried to use these incidents and similar instances of religious zealotry to launch another massive propaganda attack against Ayatollah Seyed Sadiq Hussaini Shirazi, a controvercial Qom-based cleric known for refusing to acknowledge Khamenei’s religious and political authority.

The same media and regime insiders, however, had failed to voice any opposition when regime clerics such as Ayatollahs Ahmad Alam ol-Hoda, the Custodian of Imam Reza Shrine of Mashhad and Mohammad Saeedi, Custodian of Mashoumeh Shrine in Qom, put up a strong opposition to the government decision to halt Friday prayers due to coronavirus and shrine closures.

Nothing could demonstrate the coming together of the two groups, normally bitter enemies, better than a video of the sit-in at one of the two shrines. The video showed a pro-Khamenei cleric calling on “the Great Leader” to help them keep the shrines open and someone from the other group fearlessly shouting “God’s curse be upon him!”. He was obviously a follower of Shirazi.

Radio Farda also shared a video of a cleric it described as “pro-regime” encouraging the mob to break into the shrine.

Foreign Desk News shared another video of the incidents, translating remarks by a cleric referring to those urging the worshippers to enact “social distancing” to prevent the spread of the virus as “infidels” and “Jews,” intended to be an insult. The Iranian government itself has claimed “Zionists” invented the Chinese coronavirus.

“Authorities have ordered the shrine’s closure. Well, that’s just what they’re saying. But we’re only accountable to God. We have to respond during doomsday. Who cares about which authority ordered what! We don’t care about World’s Health (Organization). They’re infidels; They’re Jews,” the cleric in the video reportedly said.

On Tuesday, Afruz Eslami, a doctor who regularly appears on Iranian state television, urged Iranians to isolate as much as possible, warning that millions could die if crowds do not cease to congregate and the government does not prepare sufficient medical facilities.

“If medical facilities are not sufficient, there will be four million cases, and 3.5 million people will die,” Eslami reportedly said.

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