Hard-line Shiites storm Iran shrines closed over coronavirus

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 reported. (Mehdi Marizad/AFP)
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Updated 17 March 2020

Hard-line Shiites storm Iran shrines closed over coronavirus

  • Roughly nine out of 10 of the over 17,000 cases of the new virus confirmed across the Middle East come from Iran
  • Iran’s shrines draw Shiites from all over the Mideast for pilgrimages, likely contributing to the spread of the virus across the region

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: Hard-line Shiite faithful in Iran pushed their way into the courtyards of two major shrines just closed over fears of the new coronavirus, Iranian state media reported Tuesday, as the Islamic Republic pressed on with its struggle to control the Mideast’s worst outbreak.
Roughly nine out of 10 of the over 17,000 cases of the new virus confirmed across the Middle East come from Iran, where authorities denied for days the risk the outbreak posed. Officials have now implemented new checks for people trying to leave major cities ahead of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on Friday, but have hesitated to quarantine the areas.
Late on Monday night, angry crowds stormed into the courtyards of Mashhad’s Imam Reza shrine and Qom’s Fatima Masumeh shrine. Crowds typically pray there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, touching and kissing the shrine. That’s worried health officials, who for weeks ordered Iran’s Shiite clergy to close them.
Earlier on Monday, the state TV had announced the shrines’ closure, sparking the demonstrations.
“We are here to say that Tehran is damn wrong to do that!” one Shiite cleric shouted at the shrine in Mashhad, according to online video. Others joined him in chanting: “The health minister is damn wrong to do that, the president is damn wrong to do that!”
Police later dispersed the crowds, state media reported. Religious authorities and a prominent Qom seminary called the demonstration an “insult” to the shrine in a statement, urging the faithful to rely on “wisdom and patience” amid the closure.
Iran’s shrines draw Shiites from all over the Mideast for pilgrimages, likely contributing to the spread of the virus across the region. Saudi Arabia earlier closed off Islam’s holiest sites over fear of the virus spreading.
President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday said despite the closures, “our soul is closer to the saints more than at any time.”
State TV reported that Iran had deployed teams to screen travelers leaving major cities in 13 provinces, including the capital, Tehran. But Iran has 31 provinces and authorities haven’t taken the step to lock down the country like in the allied nations of Iraq and Lebanon.
The teams check travelers’ temperatures and will send those with fevers to quarantine centers. Iran has been urging people to stay home, but many have ignored the call.
Apparently in efforts to curb the spread of the virus, Iran has released 85,000 prisoners on temporary leave, judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said Tuesday. He said that included half of all “security-related” prisoners, without elaborating. Western nations have called on Iran to release dual nationals and others held allegedly as bargaining chips in negotiations.
Among those released is Mohammad Hossein Karroubi, the son of opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, who was in jail for nearly two months.
Most people infected by the new coronavirus experience only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and recover within weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by people with no visible symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
In Oman, the sultanate announced anyone coming from abroad would be subject to quarantine.
Meanwhile in Israel, the Defense Ministry was to roll out its plan to use near-empty hotel facilities, ravaged by the crash in tourism, as recovery centers for patients diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
Two hotels are to begin receiving patients on Tuesday with others likely to follow. The facilities are to be overseen by medical officials with patients quarantined in rooms, and food and other amenities delivered to the rooms by protected hotel staff.
Israel’s Defense Minister Naftali Bennett issued orders Tuesday to allow into Israel only those Palestinian workers and merchants whose work is deemed essential in health, agriculture, nursing and construction. Workers allowed in will stay in Israel for between one and two months.
Also, following an overnight Cabinet approval, Israel’s internal Shin Bet security service said it will begin deploying its phone-tracking technology to combat the spread of the virus. The Shin Bet insisted the use will be limited only to help “save lives” and warn those who have been exposed. Amid secrecy concerns, it said the technology won’t be used to enforce quarantines and the data will only be stored temporarily and available to just a select group of agents. The emergency ordinance will be effective for 30 days.


Lebanese farmers sow seeds for new cannabis growers’ syndicate

Updated 17 min 49 sec ago

Lebanese farmers sow seeds for new cannabis growers’ syndicate

  • Ministers, MPs rumored to be buying agricultural land after law legalizes production for medical, industrial uses

BEIRUT: A group of Lebanese farmers have sown the seeds for the setting up of a growers’ syndicate for the production of cannabis plants.

The move to establish a founding committee of agricultural sector representatives followed a decision by the Lebanese Parliament in April to legalize the use of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes.

In doing so, Lebanon become the first Arab country to pass a law allowing the cultivation of the plant for specific non-recreational uses.  

Farmers from the Baalbek-Hermel Governorate in eastern Lebanon announced plans for the formation of the new committee during a press conference held at a tourist complex in the region.

Former president of the Tobacco Growers’ Association in Baalbek-Hermel, Ahmed Zaiter, told Arab News: “Through the founding committee that we intend to form from representatives of families in the region who work in agriculture in general, we wanted to move the law enforcement mechanism in preparation for obtaining licenses to start planting cannabis, knowing that there are those who grow hashish in the region and we do not yet know whether this plant is the same one that was legislated.”

The new Lebanese law will provide for the formation of a government-monitored regulatory body to manage the cultivation, production, and export of cannabis. The cultivation process produces the drug tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and industrially fibers from the plant can be used for making products such as clothes and cars.

A 2018 study by US consulting firm McKinsey and Co. estimated that Lebanon could generate $1 billion annually from legalizing cannabis cultivation.

Zaiter pointed out “the importance of the birth of a syndicate of cannabis growers to organize this cultivation, the need to grant licenses to farmers, start preparing for seed insurance, and receive this plant from the state.”

He added that farmers would be demanding that priority was given to the agricultural sector in the Bekaa Valley and the Baalbek-Hermel region and for the syndicate, when established, to join the Union of Agricultural Syndicates in Lebanon.

A body is to be set up to monitor and regulate all activities related to cannabis and its derivatives, including planting, cultivation, harvesting, production, possession, export, storage, marketing, and distribution.

Cannabis is known in the northern Bekaa as “green gold” and its cultivation was active during the civil war in the 1970s in remote areas of the region where armed mafias were formed to guard and smuggle it abroad.

During the early 1950s, about 300 tons of cannabis was produced every year in border regions between Lebanon and Syria.

Under international pressure, state agencies began the process of destroying cannabis crops in the 1990s.

During the press conference, farmers discussed claims circulated on social media that ministers and MPs had been buying agricultural land in the Baalbek-Hermel region.

Zaiter said: “These farmers have expressed their fear that the new owners aim to engage in this agriculture in the future and monopolize its production and sale.”

Baalbek official, Haider Shams, told Arab News that land purchases, especially in remote parts of the region, were on the rise. “The price of 1 meter ranges from $5 to $10. Many people are buying in Majdaloun and Taybeh, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the cultivation of cannabis.”

Zaiter said: “So far, none of the MPs who legislated the law know what kind of Indian hemp (cannabis) they allowed.

“One of the specialists showed us a plant with few green leaves, which is not the one grown by cannabis growers in Lebanon, which means that there are many types of this plant, and if the legalized plant is the one with few leaves, I do not think that anyone will accept its cultivation because it is a losing cultivation.”

Meanwhile, the Lebanese Army Command announced on Monday that gunmen had killed one soldier during a dawn attack on an army patrol and military centers in Talia, Pretal, Al-Khader, and Douris.

The military has linked the raids to an incident the day before when fugitive Abbas Al-Masri fired shots into the air at an army checkpoint in Douris while trying to drive through. Checkpoint personnel shot and injured Al-Masri and a passenger in his vehicle and both casualties were transferred to a hospital in Baalbek for treatment.