Masks and tears: Shiites mark Ashura at Iraq shrines despite virus
Thousands of tearful Shiite Muslim pilgrims wearing gloves and masks flooded Iraq's holy city of Karbala on Sunday to mark Ashura, in one of the largest religious gatherings of the coronavirus era.
Ashura, on the 10th day of the mourning month of Muharram, commemorates the killing of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD -- the defining moment of Islam's confessional schism.
Typically, millions of Shiites from around the world flock to the city's golden-domed shrine where Hussein's remains are buried, to pray and cry, shoulder-to-shoulder.
But with coronavirus numbers spiking across the globe, this year's commemoration has been subdued.
"Honestly, this year is nothing like the millions-strong commemorations of other years," said Fadel Hakim, who was out early in the streets around the shrine, a blue medical mask cupping his chin.
"It stands out because there are so few people."
Small clusters of pilgrims gathered in the vast courtyards outside the shrine, wearing the customary black mourning clothes along with less traditional masks and gloves.
To be allowed in, people had their temperatures taken at grey gates resembling metal detectors.
Inside, signs indicated the required distance between worshippers as they pray and nylon sheets prevented people from kissing the walls, a traditional sign of reverence.
- Praying for a 'miracle' -
But in the enclave where Imam Hussein is buried, pilgrims pressed their unmasked faces up against the ornate grille separating them from the mausoleum.
Many visitors were crying or sniffling, wiping their faces with bare hands, gestures which could help the virus spread.
Despite directives by Iraq's health ministry to keep apart, worshippers stood in tight-knit circles to vigorously beat their chests, self-flagellate or make small incisions on their foreheads as signs of grief at Hussein's death.
They put on a dramatic re-enactment of his killing at the hands of Sunni Caliph Yazid's forces, then sprinted towards the shrine in the famed "Tuwairij run".
Some wore masks as they jogged under disinfectant mists, but there were otherwise no protective measures taken.
Last year, a stampede broke out in Karbala that left at least 31 dead and dozens more wounded.
"This year will prove to the whole world that a pilgrimage to the Imam Hussein shrine is like a miracle. God willing, there won't be any new coronavirus cases," said Mohammad Abdulamir, a mask-less pilgrim.
Authorities in Iraq, other Shiite-majority countries and the United Nations urged people to mark Ashura at home.
Neighbouring Iran, which usually sends tens of thousands of pilgrims to Karbala, is the hardest-hit Middle Eastern country with over 21,000 coronavirus deaths.
It broadcast religious rituals on state television and even Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, prayed alone, according to images published by his office.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have reported a fall in new virus cases but security remained a top concern, as Ashura has often been tainted by mass violence targeting Shiites.
In the southern port city of Karachi, an estimated 10,000 took part in the largest ceremony, many flagellating their bare backs using multiple blades at once while a heavy security presence kept close watch.
"It's not possible that anyone would be infected with the virus," said Israr Hussain Shah, a Shiite devotee in the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
"Rather people come to heal and protect themselves, whether that's a virus of faith or a sickness," he said.
- 'An inferno' -
In many Shiite-majority countries, authorities have long urged their faithful to donate blood instead of self-flagellating.
This year, B
ahrain implemented tougher screening at their blood drive, with health workers meticulously disinfecting the site.
Organisers also swapped their traditional free food distribution for door-to-door delivery instead.
In crisis-hit Lebanon, which has seen a severe coronavirus spike this month, powerful Shiite movements Hezbollah and Amal scrapped large Ashura processions.
Iraq has the second-highest regional toll with close to 7,000 deaths.
Last week, the World Health Organization warned that COVID-19 cases in Iraq were rising at an "alarming rate" and said the country should take action to end the community outbreak "at all costs".
All of Iraq's provinces had seen a steady spike in cases, with Karbala logging a record high of 336 cases on August 21, when Muharram began.
The province was closed to non-residents for months but two days before Ashura, authorities lifted restrictions to allow fellow Iraqis to enter.
Still, some opted to stay home, including Abu Ali, in the packed Baghdad district of Sadr City.
"My children, grandchildren and I go to Karbala every year, but this year we were afraid of corona," he said.
"Imam Hussein wouldn't want us to throw ourselves into an inferno."