Private prayers and empty funerals: The pandemic is hard on the Middle East faithful

Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

BEIRUT -- Paying no attention to the tenets of social distancing, the abaya-shrouded women -- no masks or gloves among them -- crowded into the Baghdad square surrounding the shrine to Imam Musa Kadhim.

"I invite China, Italy and Iran," one of the women said to a journalist from a satellite news station. "Those are the three biggest countries to be harmed. ... I invite them all to come to the Imam."

"We'll run tests on them in this very square," she said. "If they're not all 100% free of (the novel coronavirus), they can slaughter all of us."

The woman's devotion was unwavering. But in a time of pandemic, religion, the sanctuary for so many in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, has been hit hard. Its houses of faith -- mosques, churches, temples and shrines -- have become a front line in the battle by governments to smother the spread of a deadly global virus. So have its rituals, which draw believers to pilgrimages or massive gatherings of communal worship.

All are now forbidden.

Much of the religious leadership across the region has acquiesced to the requirements of self-isolation. But others, such as the women at the Kadhim shrine -- followers of the Iraqi populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- insist their faith has made them impervious to the disease and may indeed offer the key to its cure.


For those adhering to public health guidelines, it has meant a ravaging of the religious calendar.

Arguably the biggest loss for the Muslims in the region (along with 1.9 billion Muslims worldwide) came early in the crisis: In the first week of March, Saudi Arabia suspended the Umrah, the so-called little pilgrimage, to Mecca and Medina, disrupting the travel plans of millions.

For the first time in recent history, the Kaaba, the black cubelike structure that is Islam's most important site, was devoid of its pilgrims. Worse, the outbreak now imperils the Hajj, the main pilgrimage that every Muslim must do once in their lifetime and that was set for July. Last year, some 2.5 million people participated. (More than 600,000 have already registered for visas this year.)

That wasn't all. As March progressed and the number of infected kept climbing, Saudi Arabia extended the suspension to all prayers in mosques. Other Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain followed suit.


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