Iran’s Health Ministry has announced that religious shrines will remain closed in what appears to be a blow to influential hard-line clerics who are pushing for the sites to reopen amid efforts to contain one of the Middle East’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.
"Until there’s full assurance that pilgrims to religious sites will not face problems, we won't allow ourselves to open the doors of these centers to the people," Health Minister Saeed Namaki was quoted as saying by the semiofficial ISNA news agency on April 30.
Namaki's comments came a day after another Health Ministry official, Alireza Raeisi, said religious sites in several cities, including Qom and the capital, Tehran, will remain shut until the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which started over the weekend, unless conditions change.
"Although, with the current situation, it is unlikely that this happens soon," he added.
The comments come amid reports of pressure on the government to reopen shrines that were shut in March, triggering protests by hard-liners who attempted to storm the Massoumeh shrine in Qom and the Imam Reza shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad.
The government shut the holy Shi’ite sites, visited annually by millions of pilgrims who often touch and kiss the shrines, in an effort to contain the country's coronavirus outbreak, which has killed nearly 6,000 people and infected over 93,500, according to Health Ministry figures released on April 29. Given the lack of transparency by government officials and media reporting restrictions, real numbers are believed to be significantly higher.
On April 29, the spokesman for the head of seminaries in the holy Shi’ite city of Qom, where the outbreak erupted in February before spreading to the rest of the country, called on President Hassan Rohani to reconsider his decision to close the shrines and apologize to Iranians for shutting them.
Hojatoleslam Abbas Rafaati Naeini claimed that experts at the country’s anti-coronavirus taskforce have concluded that the shrines had a minimal role in the spread of the coronavirus in the country.
There have been similar calls by other clerics to reopen the shrines, including by influential ayatollah and Rohani critic, Ahmad Alamolhoda, who leads Friday Prayers in Iran’s second-largest city Mashhad.
Rohani's adviser Hesamedin Ashna had suggested on Twitter that there had been tough discussions regarding the reopening of religious sites.
"Unfortunately, we will have to live with the coronavirus for a while longer," Rohani said earlier this week. The Iranian president said that, as a cleric, he had hoped that religious sites could reopen more quickly.
Iran has in past days eased some of the restrictions it had introduced to combat the outbreak and reopened some businesses to salvage the economy, which is already under intense pressure from crippling U.S. economic sanctions.
Authorities have repeatedly called on Iranians to follow health protocols and social distancing guidelines to slow the outbreak amid warnings that the country could be hit by a second wave of infections.