Karbala (Iraq) (AFP)
The masks were almost nowhere to be found on Thursday as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims crowded into the Iraqi sanctuary city of Karbala for the Shiite commemoration of Ashura, ignoring fears of Covid.
The number of pilgrims was down from the millions present before the pandemic took hold, and there were only a few pilgrims from outside Iraq, most from neighboring Iran or the Pakistan.
Ashura commemorates a watershed moment in the birth of the Shiite branch of Islam which is the majority religion in Iraq and Iran.
It marks the murder of the grandson of the prophet Mohamed, Imam Hussein, by the troops of Caliph Yazid in 680 AD in the Karbala desert.
Pilgrims traditionally walk to Karbala, sleeping in roadside camps set up along the way, with summer temperatures that regularly exceed 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).
As Ashura approaches, mourning rituals are also held in Shiite towns and neighborhoods across Iraq.
In Karbala, the more zealous flogged themselves with plagues or blades until their heads and backs were raw and dripping with blood, a practice frowned upon by Shia spiritual leaders.
– Providence divine –
For worshipers, religious devotion far outweighs concerns about Covid infection.
Even though only just over five percent of Iraqis have been fully vaccinated against Covid, pilgrims insisted they did not need masks, relying on divine providence to protect them.
“Our belief protects us,” said an unmasked pilgrim, who had traveled to Karbala from the southern town of Kut.
“We don’t bother with masks because our faith in Imam Hussein protects us from everything,” said the pilgrim, who gave his name only as Dholam.
Another unmasked pilgrim, Kamel Mohammed, from the southern city of Basra, said he too trusted God.
“I have great faith in God,” he said. “I am the example of Imam Hussein. “
Large crowds of pilgrims began to gather around the golden-domed mausoleum of Imam Hussein in the heart of the city from Wednesday evening.
Drums beat the beat, while worshipers sang prayers and poems commemorating Hussein’s martyrdom.
– Super-spreader? –
Prior to the pandemic, major Shiite pilgrimages to Iraq were among the largest religious gatherings in the world, and some feared they might be mass-market events.
Indian health officials said the Kumbh Mela Hindu pilgrimage, a three-year event that drew millions to the Himalayan city of Haridwar in January, may have helped fuel an upsurge in infections earlier this month. year.
Currently, Iraq registers around 10,000 new cases of Covid per day in its population of around 40 million.
The recorded deaths from Covid since the start of the pandemic are just under 20,000, according to figures from the Ministry of Health.
The deputy director of Imam Hussein’s mausoleum, Afzal Shami, insisted that measures had been taken to prevent a major epidemic among the pilgrims.
“Masks have been provided to visitors and anyone else who needs them for hygienic reasons,” Shami said.
“Mobile teams have been deployed around the holy places to keep them sterilized and reduce risks. “
Disinfectant dispensers had been installed at the entrances to the sanctuary, lit in red to attract attention. But there was not enough for the huge crowds camping outside.
“It’s up to individual citizens to protect themselves by adopting preventive measures,” Shami said.
Even before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic early last year, security was tightened for Shiite pilgrimages for fear of being attacked by Sunni extremists inspired by Al Qaeda or the Islamic State group, who consider the Shiites as heretics.
Roadblocks were again put in place this year on all roads leading to Karbala, and access to the town was completely closed from Wednesday.
Abbas, a pilgrim in his 60s who spent Wednesday night inside the mausoleum, said it was the price of religious duty.
“Tonight only comes once a year,” Abbas said. “You have to make sacrifices to perform the rituals. “
© 2021 AFP