Facing coronavirus concerns, tens of thousands of worshipers have poured into Iraq’s holy city of Karbala for the Arbaeen pilgrimage, one of the world’s largest religious gatherings. Arbaeen marks the close of Thursday’s 40-day mourning period for the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), in the seventh century.
At the end of August, during Ashura ceremonies in Iraq and other nations, his martyrdom, a historic moment in Islam, was mourned this year. But Iraq had closed its borders to non-locals, unlike previous years, allowing only locals to join in Ashura. In an attempt to avoid the spread of coronavirus, Iraq’s borders were opened for Arbaeen, but with limits on Arbaeen arrivals.
With more than 375,000 infected individuals and almost 9,500 deaths, the epidemic has struck Iraq hard. In 2019, an unprecedented 14 million visitors, including around two million from neighbouring Iran, overwhelmed Iraq to attend Arbaeen. However, only 1,500 pilgrims per country are permitted to fly to Iraq this year, although Iran has been approved to send a further 2,500 overland pilgrims.
Issa al-Shemmari, airport director in Najaf, another holy city south of Karbala, said, “Any day about six and ten planes land and more are arriving in the days ahead.” Iraqis have been walking to Karbala for Arbaeen from all over the world, in keeping with tradition. “Mawakib” tents were constructed on the roads to the city to provide free food, drink and lodging for pilgrims.
“We ate along the way and were able to clean ourselves,” said AFP pilgrim Ali Hadi, on his arrival from the southern city of Basra in Karbala. Despite frequent appeals from officials and social distance, only a handful of the pilgrims around him wearing mouth and nose coverings have been largely overlooked.
On Sunday, mask-clad Muslims circled Islam’s holiest site in Makkah along historically distant paths in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, as authorities largely reinstated the year-round Umrah pilgrimage with detailed health safeguards.