Thousands of Iraqi Shias defy coronavirus curfews to commemorate imam

Tens of thousands of Iraqi Shias turned out to commemorate a revered imam on Saturday, defying curfews imposed to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

On foot, they streamed to the golden-domed mausoleum of Imam al-Kadhim in Baghdad, where authorities kept an outer gate open to allow pilgrims into the surrounding courtyard.

The inner shrine remained closed despite some pilgrims pressing authorities to let them in, a shrine official told AFP.

“There are many fewer pilgrims than in previous years,” the official said, asking not to be identified.

“For the first time, there are no foreign pilgrims -- everyone comes from Iraqi provinces.”

Read more: Iraqi Shia ceremonial eulogists defying ban on public gatherings

The anniversary typically draws millions of devout followers from around the world who visit and kiss the shrine housing the remains of Musa al-Kadhim, who died in 799 in the custody of Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid.

Many come from Iran, which is now battling one of the world’s deadliest coronavirus outbreaks.

Iraq banned travel to and from Iran last month for fear of a potential spillover.

Last week, it expanded the measures into a total flight ban until March 24 and shut shrines across the country.

The country’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has urged Iraqis not to gather in large numbers for prayers, where the risk of contamination could be high.

On Friday, his representative issued another rare statement urging Muslims to abide by medical advice on social distancing but did not specifically tell pilgrims to stay home.

Authorities have struggled to enforce lockdowns announced in more than half of Iraq’s 18 provinces, as well as a ban on travel between provinces.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:57 - GMT 06:57
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