Iran reports largest spike in coronavirus fatalities as 147 more die

Iranian health officials have urged the public to avoid travel and crowded places, but many seem to be ignoring the warnings. (AP)
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Updated 18 March 2020

Iran reports largest spike in coronavirus fatalities as 147 more die

  • The rise in deaths comes as the number of cases continues to grow each day
  • ealth officials have urged the public to avoid travel and crowded places

TEHRAN: Iran reported its single biggest jump in deaths from the new coronavirus on Wednesday, saying that another 147 had died in a nearly 15 percent spike that raises the death toll to 1,135 people nationwide.
It marks the biggest 24-hour rise in deaths since officials first acknowledged cases of the virus in Iran in mid-February.
The rise in deaths comes as the number of cases continues to grow each day, with some 17,361 people having been infection nationwide, according to a briefing Wednesday by Iran’s deputy health minister, Alireza Raisi.
The outbreak has cast a shadow over the Persian New Year, Nowruz, a normally joyous holiday that begins on Friday. Health officials have urged the public to avoid travel and crowded places. But many seem to be ignoring the warnings, raising the risk of further outbreaks.
Some food markets in the capital, Tehran, were still packed on Wednesday, and highways were crowded with traffic as families traveled between cities. Iran also announced it would close mosques for communal Friday prayers for a third consecutive week.
Raisi criticized people for not adhering to the warnings, saying on national television the virus is very serious. “This is not a good situation at all,” he said as he implored people to stay home.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday defended his government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in the face of of widespread criticism that officials acted too slowly and may have even covered up initial cases before infections rapidly spread across the country.
In a speech to his Cabinet, Rouhani said the government was “straightforward” with the nation, saying it announced the outbreak as soon as it learned about it on Feb. 19.
“We spoke to people in an honest way. We had no delay,” he added.
The government has come under heavy criticism for what has been seen as a slow and inadequate response. For weeks, government officials implored clerics to shut down crowded holy shrines to stymie the spread of the virus. The government finally closed the shrines this week.
“It was difficult of course to shut down mosques and holy sites, but we did it. It was a religious duty to do it,” Rouhani said.


Museum or mosque? Top Turkey court to rule on Hagia Sophia

Updated 02 July 2020

Museum or mosque? Top Turkey court to rule on Hagia Sophia

  • Hagia Sophia has been a museum since 1935
  • It was first constructed as a church in the Christian Byzantine Empire

ISTANBUL: Turkey’s top court will deliver a critical verdict Thursday on whether Istanbul’s emblematic landmark and former church Hagia Sophia can be redesignated as a mosque, a ruling which could inflame tensions with the West.
The sixth-century edifice — a magnet for tourists worldwide with its stunning architecture — has been a museum since 1935, open to believers of all faiths.
Despite occasional protests by Islamic groups, often shouting, “Let the chains break and open Hagia Sophia” for Muslim prayers outside the UNESCO world heritage site, authorities have so far kept the building a museum.
The Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a church in the Christian Byzantine Empire in the sixth century but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Transforming the Hagia Sophia into a museum was a key reform of the post-Ottoman Turkish authorities under the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
But calls for it to serve again as a mosque have raised anger among Christians and tensions between historic foes and uneasy NATO allies Turkey and Greece.
Turkey’s Council of State will deliver a ruling on its status either on the same day or within two weeks, the official Anadolu news agency reported.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month said the decision was for the court — known as the Danistay — adding: “The necessary steps will be taken following the verdict.”
But Erdogan previously indicated it was time to rename the Hagia Sophia as a mosque, saying it had been a “very big mistake” to convert it into a museum, in comments before municipal elections last year.
“The Danistay decision will likely be a political one. Whatever the outcome, it will be a result of the government’s deliberation,” said Asli Aydintasbas, fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
But she added the government will be weighing a number of issues, including relations with Greece, Europe and with the US where “religion is an important matter.”
Anthony Skinner of the risk assessment firm Verisk Maplecroft said converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque would “kill at least two birds with one stone” for Erdogan: he could cater to his Islamic and nationalist base, and sustain if not exacerbate tensions with Greece, all while seeking to cast Turkey as a formidable power.
“Erdogan could not find a more high-profile and potent symbol than Hagia Sophia to achieve all these goals at once,” he told AFP.
The Turkish leader has in recent years placed ever greater emphasis on the battles which resulted in the defeat of Byzantium by the Ottomans, with lavish celebrations held every year to mark the conquest.
In May, Muslim clerics recited prayers in the museum to celebrate the anniversary after the first Qur'an recital in 85 years inside the Hagia Sophia in 2015.
In 2016, the state religious channel broadcast a Qur'an recitation by a different senior Turkish cleric inside the museum on each day of the holy month of Ramadan.
Greece closely follows the future of Byzantine heritage in Turkey and is sensitive to the issue as it sees itself as the modern succession to Orthodox Christian Byzantium.
Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni, who sent a letter of protest to UNESCO last week, said the move “rekindles national and religious fanaticism” and is an attempt to “diminish the monument’s global radiance.”
She accused the government of using the monument “to serve internal political interests,” arguing that only UNESCO had the authority to change Hagia Sophia’s status.
The issue is also followed closely in Washington.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday urged Turkey to keep the Hagia Sophia as a museum, and to ensure it remains accessible to all.
“The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability... to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.”
But Turks are divided over its future status.
Mahmut Karagoz, an Istanbul shoemaker, 55, dreams he can one day pray under the dome of Hagia Sophia.
“It is a legacy by our Ottoman ancestors. I hope our prayers will be heard, this nostalgia must come to an end,” he told AFP.
However Sena Yildiz, an economics student, believes the Hagia Sophia should retain its museum status.
“It is an important place for Muslims, but also for Christians and for all those who love history,” she said.