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Religious tourism to Iran triggers spread of coronavirus across Gulf
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 14 - 03 - 2020

OVER 200 Bahraini citizens tested positive for coronavirus till Saturday after being evacuated from Iran, just one example of how many infections in the Middle East are the result of religious pilgrimage to the republic.
Most of Saudi Arabia's coronavirus cases are people who had been in Iran or Iraq, or met individuals who visited those countries, which are both home to many holy sites of the Shiite sect.
Other Gulf states have reported hundreds of coronavirus cases in people who had visited Iran, according to the New York Times.
The Iranian government has reported 12,729 infections and 611 deaths from the virus so far. However, experts and some public officials have consistently cast doubt on the official numbers. An analysis by The Atlantic magazine put the estimated number of people infected in Iran at 2 million.
It is likely Iranian officials don't know the actual number of infected people, according to Dr. Kaveh Khoshnood, a professor of epidemiology at Yale University's School of Public Health.
Iran's coronavirus "numbers have changed drastically and there is not much transparency" he told Al Arabiya English in an interview.
Iran's prominent Shiite position attracts millions of pilgrims to the country every year and this religious tourism is a major factor in the spread of the virus across the region, according to expert on Shiite politics Hanin Ghaddar.
Shiites are recommended to make pilgrimage to Iranian holy sites, according to Yale University scholar of Iran and Shiism, Prof. Abbas Amanat.
"It is recommended to visit the Shiite shrines in Iraq and Iran. It is not an obligation," said Amanat in an interview with Al Arabiya English.
Millions of Shiites from around the world journey to Iran every year to pay reverence at the shrines of their divinely guided leaders, known as imams, and the relatives of the imams.
Iran's eastern city of Mashhad, which attracts over two million pilgrims annually, is home to the shrine of the eighth Shiite Imam Musa Al-Rida and is considered the most important holy site in the country.
The second most significant holy Shiite site in Iran is the Shrine of Ma'suma, the imam's sister, which is in the central city of Qom, the first city in Iran to record coronavirus cases, as well as deaths from the virus.
Amid the outbreak of coronavirus, Iranian officials have requested major shrines in cities like Qom and Mashhad close, but clerics have failed to comply. Videos showing Iranians licking the holy shrines have gone viral, and two men have been arrested as a result. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei initially accused foreign media of trying to use a deadly outbreak of coronavirus in Iran to "discourage" people from voting in the country's parliamentary elections last month.
Saudi Arabia has taken stringent preventive measures in Islam's holiest site of Makkah, erecting a barrier around the Holy Ka'ba to protect it from worshipers and temporarily suspending entry for pilgrims embarking on the Islamic pilgrimage of Umrah.
The Kingdom has halted foreign travel into the country from several countries and gave its citizens 72 hours to return from the UAE or Bahrain starting on Tuesday.
Though Saudi Arabia banned all travel to Iran after the 2016 attack on the Saudi embassy and consulate in the republic, Riyadh granted a two-day amnesty to its citizens on March 5 to declare any current or recent visit to Iran, without being subject to penalties relating to the Kingdom's travel regulations.
Travel of Saudi citizens to Iran has gone undisclosed since the Iranian government does not stamp the passports of Saudi citizens, an action condemned as "irresponsible" by a Saudi official on Thursday.
"This behavior poses a serious public health threat to the international community and undermines international efforts to combat the coronavirus, putting many communities around the world at risk," the official said.
Last year Iran stopped stamping passports of foreign nationals to encourage tourism, according to Iranian President Hassan Rohani, and has not changed its policy amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Given the global nature of the coronavirus as a public health emergency, "every government has an obligation not only to protect their own citizens but also to protect neighboring countries and beyond," said Dr. Khoshnood.
"A crucial aspect of that is to be transparent and share public health relevant information with other governments to assist them with their response," he added.
Saudi Arabia last week imposed a fine of up to half a million riyals ($133,000) for people who do not disclose the correct health-related information at the country's entry points. — Al Arabiya English

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