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Despite virus, pilgrims pour into Iraq's Karbala ahead of Ashura

Enormous tents have been erected as usual to host pilgrims in Iraq, but with a new twist, an attempt at social distancing.
Updated 21 Aug, 2020 08:46pm

Shia pilgrims poured into the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala on Friday for the rites of the holy month of Muharram, despite calls to stay home as Covid-19 spreads.

The pilgrimage is expected to be one of the largest religious gatherings in the Muslim world since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which already forced Saudi Arabia to hold the smallest Haj in modern history.

Usually, millions of Shia pilgrims from around the world flock to Iraq to commemorate the birth of their faith, praying, eating and reflecting together.

Iraqis respect social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic as they gather to commemorate the start of the month of Muharram ahead of Ashura, in the central city of Najaf, on August 20. — AFP
Iraqis respect social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic as they gather to commemorate the start of the month of Muharram ahead of Ashura, in the central city of Najaf, on August 20. — AFP

But this year, authorities in Iraq, Iran and beyond have repeatedly urged their citizens to forgo real-life pilgrimages due to the high risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Shia-majority Iran is the hardest-hit Middle Eastern country with more than 20,000 coronavirus deaths. Iraq is second with more than 6,200.

Still, by Thursday night, thousands of pilgrims were already en route to the gates of the golden mausoleums in the holy city of Karbala, some masked and gloved but others proceeding shoulder-to-shoulder as they always had.

This picture shows a partial view of the Imam Ali mosque at the start of Muharram ahead of Ashura, in the central city of Najaf, on August 20. — AFP
This picture shows a partial view of the Imam Ali mosque at the start of Muharram ahead of Ashura, in the central city of Najaf, on August 20. — AFP

'Dramatically different'

Enormous tents have been erected as usual to host pilgrims in Baghdad and Basra as well as Karbala, but with a new twist — an attempt at social distancing.

On the ground, stickers of footprints or large crosses suggest how far worshippers should stay from one another.

“It's dramatically different from other years,” said Salim Mahdi, a tent manager in Basra near the Iraq-Iran border.

“People are disinfecting themselves as soon as they enter the tent, then positioning themselves far away from one another and disinfecting themselves again.”

Iraqis respect social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic as they gather to commemorate the start of Muharram ahead of Ashura, in the central city of Najaf. — AFP
Iraqis respect social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic as they gather to commemorate the start of Muharram ahead of Ashura, in the central city of Najaf. — AFP

A man reads a speech as Iraqis gather to commemorate the start of Muharram in the central city of Najaf, on August 20. — AFP
A man reads a speech as Iraqis gather to commemorate the start of Muharram in the central city of Najaf, on August 20. — AFP

In neighbouring Iran, reformist newspaper Arman called it “the most astonishing Muharram of the century”.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the health ministry banned the usual marches, musical performances and banquets, and any ceremonies indoors.

Some worshippers adapted quickly: Ali Moadab, who writes funerary chants traditionally recited during Muharram, told AFP he would perform the hymns live on Instagram.

At home, he said, “I will read to my family books telling the story of Imam Husain.”

Iraqis respect social distancing at a mosque on August 20 as they start marking Ashura under new health guidelines to limit the risk of exposure to Covid-19 virus. — AFP
Iraqis respect social distancing at a mosque on August 20 as they start marking Ashura under new health guidelines to limit the risk of exposure to Covid-19 virus. — AFP

In Lebanon, powerful Shia movement Hezbollah announced that no large tents would be installed this year and families were urged to observe at home.

People in the Bahraini capital Manama watched televised and online commemorations, as access to mosques was severely restricted.

“We are used to being there in person, and before Muharram starts we usually help with the placing of the black cloths. This year, it is heart-breaking,” said Ali, a 22-year-old shopkeeper in Manama who was watching prayers online.

Iraqis respect social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic as they gather to commemorate the start of Muharram ahead of Ashura, in the central city of Najaf. — AFP
Iraqis respect social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic as they gather to commemorate the start of Muharram ahead of Ashura, in the central city of Najaf. — AFP

Big flags, small crowds

Without the throngs of people worshipping or marching outside, the only indications Muharram had begun were the ubiquitous black flags.

In Karbala, there were markedly smaller crowds under the grim banners of the Imam Husain mausoleum — and for the first time nearly all were locals, as entry to the province had been banned for non-residents.

Iraqis from other provinces managed to sneak into the city, using unmarked roads to circumvent checkpoints.

A man sprays people with disinfectant due to the coronavirus pandemic, as they gather to commemorate the start of Muharram ahead of Ashura, in Najaf, on August 20. — AFP
A man sprays people with disinfectant due to the coronavirus pandemic, as they gather to commemorate the start of Muharram ahead of Ashura, in Najaf, on August 20. — AFP

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the top cleric for many of the world's Shias, had called for all ceremonies to be broadcast live and for the faithful to pray at home or to wear masks and keep their distance if praying in public.

Other religious figures appear to have thrown caution to the wind, directing their followers to gather in large numbers as usual throughout the first 10 days of Muharram.

On August 30, they are expected to gather for Ashura, when some worshippers flagellate themselves or make small cuts to their heads in displays of grief over Imam Husain's martyrdom in the Battle of Karbala.


Header image: Iraqis respect social distancing at a mosque on August 20 as they start marking Ashura under new health guidelines to limit the risk of exposure to Covid-19 virus. — AFP