How Iran’s clergy helped conquer coronavirus

The black-turbaned senior cleric first heard that coronavirus might have spread to Qom about two weeks before official confirmation that the holy city had become the second global centre for the disease after China’s Wuhan.

By the time that Iran’s health ministry had acknowledged that two people had died in the Islamic world’s biggest centre for Shia clerics on February 19, Ayatollah Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi, 73, had already stopped going swimming for fear of infection.

The ayatollah has since stopped teaching and isolated himself at home, as have most of Qom’s senior clergy, some of them about 100 years old. Clerics also accepted the closure of shrines, seminaries, mosques and Friday prayers for the first time in the country’s history.

The senior clergy’s acquiescence and co-operation helped subdue the spread of the virus — which, as of Tuesday, has caused 9,065 deaths out of 192,439 confirmed cases — analysts said.

“Under the Islamic decrees, protecting your life and saving others is the most important religious duty for which you can stop an obligation like daily prayers or do a forbidden act like a man touching a naked woman if she is drowning,” Mr Mousavi said in his apartment in Qom, a city that is a destination for hundreds of thousands of clerical students.

“If we think deeply, we realise the institution of religion has answers for coronavirus and similar crises,” he added.

Ayatollah Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi says he is considering holding religious classes online Ayatollah Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi says he is considering holding religious classes online © Najmeh Bozorgmehr/FT

At the start of its fight against coronavirus, the Islamic republic promulgated conspiracy theories that the virus was a biological weapon and was even part of efforts to undermine a parliamentary poll in which hardliners swept to victory.

Four months on, the rhetoric has changed. Analysts say the country’s youthful population, Iranian doctors’ proactive approach, a revamped health system under President Hassan Rouhani’s “Rouhanicare”, and an agile military, which set up makeshift hospitals and helped screen the 80m-strong population, all assisted the government in containing the infection.

“Iran’s good management of coronavirus has made people feel on the same page with the rest of the world. This virus may not have added to the Islamic republic’s popularity but has certainly not [ further] damaged its legitimacy,” said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former reformist vice-president.

“The armed forces played a constructive role by helping the health sector. The senior clergy also didn’t want to be responsible for any rise in deaths even though closures of ceremonies will hurt religious beliefs in the long run.” 

Iran never imposed a curfew and only temporarily put travelling restrictions in place, partly to avoid social tensions at a time when people were already struggling because of a recession. While shops, restaurants and coffee shops have reopened, schools and universities remain shut. Friday prayers are due to resume later this month.

The co-operation of senior clergy with the health authorities has been crucial, say officials and analysts. They allowed officials to enforce restrictions on rituals and funerals and discouraged religious zealots who initially challenged the state’s instructions. Some radical Shia Muslims had even released videos of themselves licking the gates of shrines to show holy sites could not be infectious.

“It was a challenge at the beginning to convince families not to have funeral ceremonies or not to take their deceased ones to villages,” said Amir Saame, a deputy to the mayor of Qom. “The senior clergy helped a lot to convince people.”

Female pilgrims pray in the courtyard of Fatima Masoumeh’s shrine Female pilgrims pray in the courtyard of Fatima Masoumeh’s shrine © Najmeh Bozorgmehr/FT

For several months now, no visitors have been allowed at the shrine of Fatima Masoumeh, sister of Reza, one of the 12 Imams of Shia Islam.

But worshippers, including clerics, are now allowed to visit the courtyard and sit in front of the gates to a shrine that is decorated with gold and mirrors.

Red Persian rugs are spread out to allow space between visitors. Social-distancing rules are loosely enforced but face masks are not obligatory.

Before the pandemic, Fatemeh, a 22-year-old law student, used to go to the shrine twice a week. However, she accepted that the restrictions were “logical” and said all her family listened to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who had directed people to listen to medical experts. “Hazrat Masoumeh will hear us wherever we are,” she said, clad in a black top-to-toe chador. “We will visit her tomb whenever the coronavirus is over.”

Still, businesses in Qom, reliant on visitors to the shrine for their custom, are struggling to survive and fear the impact of a second wave, which is expected in the autumn. The death rate has started to rise again and authorities warn they may have to reimpose restrictions.

Mohammad, a restaurant owner, said he used to sell about 400 portions of food a day before the pandemic but this has now fallen to just 25. “We cannot survive in Qom without pilgrims,” he said. “The high number of businesses here is not for [the] more than 1m population but for the millions of pilgrims.”

While the clergy’s survival is also dependent on the donations they receive, Mr Tabrizi said the priority was people’s health, and there should be no rush to reopen seminaries.

Although some senior clerics might not want to go online, others are open to trying it. “If the second wave comes, I may consider holding online classes, despite its feelings of loneliness,” he said. “In today’s world, social distancing does not mean a cut in your communications.”