A man disinfects the shrine of Saint Masoumeh against coronavirus in the city of Qom, February 25, 2020. (AP)

September 29, 2020

As President Rouhani pushes for Iranian society and public places to reopen after the lockdown earlier in the year, authorities have not applied the same rules when it comes to places of worship for different religions.

“It’s been about 10 days since the church opened, but I’ve only become aware of it since a day or two ago,” says Vahik, an Armenian living in Iran. As the extent of the outbreak of coronavirus became evident in March, churches, mosques and shrines were closed alongside other buildings where people congregated. Armenian churches were among them. According to Vahik, the government contacted the Armenian Apostolic Diocese to inform it about the closure.

“Although the Muslim religious centers reopened in mid-May and people had the opportunity to perform their religious rites in accordance with health protocols, Christian churches were closed until early September,” he says.

“Since then, we have not been allowed to attend church. Only a month or so ago were priests and three or four people allowed to pray and to conduct Sunday prayers behind closed doors alone, without the wider congregation in attendance.”

Vahik says that as far as he knows, Armenian worshippers have been observing health protocols. Certainly, the people he knows have been doing this. “Armenians are also part of the people of this land and consider themselves obliged to observe established health laws and regulations.” Although they are committed to their religion and its rituals, wanting to observe them with the same devotion as they always have. “But when it comes to their own health and the health of others, they abide by health rules and regulations and are not willing to risk their lives and the lives of others at any cost … As a result, in the seven months that have passed since the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran, only a handful of the country’s 30,000 Armenians became infected with the virus, and only 15 of them have died from coronavirus disease.” He added that people he knew from other non-Muslim minority religions in Iran were also following these rules and guidance.

Lockdown and its Impact on Worship

Iranian authorities acknowledged that pandemic was having a significant impact on the country in March 2020, although many medical and health experts had warned that the spread of the virus was reaching crisis levels before this. From March onwards, authorities began setting out and defining health protocols, and this included the banning of all gatherings, including religious congregations. This applied to all religions and  religious groups.

Mosques, congregations, Friday prayers, Muslim shrines and other Muslim worship places, churches, fire temples, and sites of other religious worship were closed in all cities. However, from May, when  Ramadan began, and particularly as the ritual marking the nights of Ghadr approached, members of the clergy, and some seminary scholars and worshipers applied pressure on the government to allow people to enter mosques and visit shrines. Some extreme religious groups argued that holy places would protect them from any disease and that taking refuge in them would greatly reduce their risk of contracting coronavirus. They reasoned that the “spiritual light” of these sites would ward off danger and provide a cure.

Finally, in mid-May, the government reopened Muslim places of worship and mosques, again setting out health requirements and protocols.which included maintaining social distance and wearing masks. However, as Muharram approached in August, in some instances and religious communities, these regulations were ignored. Muharram, during which Shias mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the third Shia Imam, in 680 AD, is traditional marked with large ceremonies and processions. Many Iranian officials urged people to mark the religious holiday with online or remote ceremonies, though some said processions could still take place, but should observe health guidelines. Some officials and clerics did continue to ignore warnings about health risks and did not advocate much change to the normal proceedings. Many mourning ceremonies were held in groups without social distancing being observed or health guidelines being followed, paving the way for a third wave of the coronavirus outbreak in the country.

One Rule for Muslims, Another for Minority Religions 

The double standard policy applied to religious practice has meant the reopening of religious sites has only benefited the Muslim religion. Followers of other religions and religious minorities have been told they must continue to follow health protocols and that keeping their places of worship closed is intrinsic to these guidelines.

“In our religion there is never any propaganda about the spiritualization of any special place or the healing power of churches and other religious places,” says Armen, a Christian minister living in Iran.”And the people perform religious ceremonies only to become calm and close to God. So they did not put pressure on authorities to reopen the churches.”

He continued: ”No news has been published since the churches were allowed to reopen a week or two ago. For that reason people go to church individually, and there is no mention of mass attendance. For example, these days in our church, which has a capacity of about 100 people, a maximum of 10 people attend.”

He points to the gathering of priests as one of the most important Christian religious ceremonies and says. “Every year it is customary that on the anniversary of the founding of each church, the priests of other churches are invited to special services on that day. But this year the event was completely canceled, and no gathering has been allowed, even in limited numbers, since March.”

The Islamic Republic double-standard policy applies other minority religions too. Zoroastrians have not been allowed to hold any religious ceremonies involving mass attendance since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, even before the lockdown, while Muslims were allowed to perform their rituals during the first months of the year, as long as they observed health protocols. Authorities did not provide the any conditions for religious services for non-Muslims, even on a limited basis.

“Our beliefs are also based on facts,” says Bahram, a Yazidi Zoroastrian Iranian. “In the current situation, where medical science has recommended we refrain from holding any kind of gathering due to the coronavirus pandemic, [and observe] personal hygiene and social distancing, we are also subjected to these instructions in the strictest terms. But we expected that some ceremonies would be allowed to be held with strict observance of hygiene tips and a limited number.

“The followers of Zarathustra do not believe in the sanctity of the place and the sanctity of the religious centers,” he says, adding that they acknowledged that the virus or bacteria do not discriminate between one place or another and that no religious site would be immune to it.  “In our view spirituality is not limited to place, but lies in good words, thoughts and deeds.”

Bahram speaks of some of the religious rituals Zoroastrians observe, such as Pirnarki or Pir Chek Chek, which is several thousand years old. “Holding these two ceremonies is of special importance among Zoroastrians and every year Zoroastrians perform them. Many travel to Yazd from all over the world. “But this year, due to the current situation, not all of these ceremonies were held, even for Zoroastrians inside Iran.

“Unfortunately, some extremist politicians and religious people abuse the religiosity of the people and use it against them,” Bahram says, adding that many of the Muslims he knows respect his religion, and he respects Islam. He adds that the ban on religious ceremonies has endangered their business. “They do not consider it necessary for other religions.”

Iran’s adoption of this unfair policy in dealing with religious minorities and restricting the performance of their religious rites and ceremonies is of course common to its policy in general toward these religions. It is not just a policy issued during the strange circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic. Followers of non-Shia Muslim religions, have been and continue to be second-class citizens in Iran.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.