LONDON: The Iranian regime has been accused of endangering the lives of its people by keeping holy sites open amid the country’s coronavirus outbreak after footage of Shiite pilgrims licking and kissing shrines emerged on social media.
Iran has reported more than 1,500 coronavirus cases to date, the highest number in the Middle East, and the official death toll of 66 is the largest outside of China, where the virus emerged in December.
Several videos have been released in the past week of worshippers licking and kissing shrines at holy sites in the Iranian cities of Qom and Mashhad.
The shrines attract millions of pilgrims every year and have remained open despite growing coronavirus concerns in Iran, with thousands touching and kissing them every day.
Iranian journalist Masih Alinejed shared the videos and tweeted that the regime is “endangering the lives of Iranians and the world” by keeping the holy sites open.
The New York Times reported a teacher from Qom as saying: “The smell of disinfectants has become my nightmare, the city smells like a cemetery, a morgue.”
While Saudi Arabia recently suspended access to Makkah and to the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah for Umrah pilgrims, religious leaders and the regime in Iran refuse to close or restrict access to its holy sites.
The chief of the World Health Organization’s emergencies program, Mike Ryan, said Iran will need help to deal sufficiently with the virus, and health workers in the country have expressed concern that the death toll is much higher than the official figures, the UK’s Metro newspaper reported.
Some doctors and nurses said hospitals in Tehran, Qom and Rasht were overloaded. “Hospitals are full of infected people. We hear about hundreds of deaths,” said a doctor in Tehran who asked to remain anonymous. “We need more hospitals. The death toll will rise.”
President Hassan Rouhani has dismissed the claims and insisted that all necessary precautions are being taken to prevent the spread of the virus.
Cleric Mohammad Saeedi, a representative in Qom of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, had previously urged pilgrims to visit the city’s Fatima Masumeh shrine.
“We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing,” Saeedi said. “That means people should come here to heal from spiritual and physical diseases.”
Despite the outbreak, some worshippers have heeded his advice and remained defiant. “Stop scaring the people this much with coronavirus. Stop toying with people’s beliefs. Coronavirus is nothing in the Shiite shrines,” said a man filming himself at the Fatima Masumeh shrine.
“I’m going to lick here to take in all the coronavirus,” said a man in another video, before proceeding to lick the shrine.
A video from the city of Mashhad, where the Imam Reza shrine is located, showed a man licking the shrine and saying: “I’ve come to lick the Imam Reza shrine so that I contract this disease and allow others to visit the shrine with peace of mind.”
Another video shows a young boy licking and kissing the door of a shrine while an older man films and encourages the child.
The virus has now infected more than 89,000 people, killed more than 3,000 and spread to more than 60 countries, the latest figures on Monday revealed.