Virus or not, religion dominates in land of Islamic shrines

The Iranian government has become the target of popular anger and ridicule over its slow and confused response to the outbreak, which has killed at least 19 people in the country so far with wildly fluctuating reports on how many people actually have the virus.

At least part of the cause appears to be an over-powerful clergy, unwilling to interfere with religious observance. Shiite pilgrims visiting a circuit of shrines in Qom and Mashhad in Iran, as well as Najaf in Iraq, have been identified as a primary source of the disease’s spread across the Gulf.

Still, the faithful continue to have access to shrines. As recently as Wednesday, state TV said Friday prayers would go ahead as usual, including in Tehran, where the main Mosalla mosque can hold tens of thousands…

“The biggest question is why Qom has not been quarantined,” said Mehdi, a 28 year-old photographer who lives and works in Qom. “It’s getting worse with each passing day. They’re disinfecting the shrine by the hour, but unfortunately, people still go there and touch and kiss all over the place in reverence.”