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Iraq bars foreign pilgrims over coronavirus fears

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Iraq is set to bar entry to religious pilgrims to the country, its government health committee said in a statement on Monday, just weeks ahead of a Shia Muslim pilgrimage which is the largest annual religious gathering in the world.

Arbaeen, due in early October, usually draws millions of people to the holy city of Karbala.

The virus is spreading in Iraq faster than most countries in the Middle East, as it records several thousand new cases every day. More than 8,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Iraq and more than 300,000 have been infected, according to the Health Ministry.

“The committee … decided to ban the entry of (religious) visitors from any country in the world,” the statement said.

It gave no further details about travel to and from Iraq for other visitors, and did not say how long the ban would last or when it would be implemented.
The statement said places of worship would be opened provided they adhere to health and safety standards over the coronavirus pandemic.

This year, the pandemic and the killings of hundreds of young protestors have lent greater sorrow to the Shia religious ceremonies.

“Iraq has been through so much misery — from war to torture to imprisonment to forced emigration and now the coronavirus pandemic,” said Sheikh Hassan Dhakeri, a cleric in Iraq’s shrine city of Karbala.

Since then the country has been through relentless cycles of sadness. Many turn to religion for solace, Dhakeri said.

In the last century alone, Iraq underwent several bloody changes of power that culminated in the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Iraqis lived through war with Iran in the 1980s, crippling international sanctions in the 1990s and the US-led invasion of 2003, which brought sectarian infighting and the fight against ISIS.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled their homeland and those who stayed endured violence and the destruction of critical infrastructure, healthcare and access to education.

“Iraq is a sad country. From Saddam’s time until now, we haven’t known joy,” said Mohammad Karbalai, a 31-year-old religious chanter from Karbala.
“People feel that there is injustice but there is also good — and that in the end, all throughout history, good always wins,” Karbalai added.

Iraqis are also mourning more than 8,600 loved ones who have lost their lives to Covid-19, among nearly 323,000 confirmed cases in the country.

In a bid to stem the spread of the virus, Iraq has kept its borders closed to non-residents and urged citizens not to attend large gatherings.

But tens of thousands of Iraqis are estimated to attend Arbeen, marking the close of the traditional 40-day grieving period since the death of Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson.

Hussein was killed by followers of Caliph Yazid in the seventh century — the seminal moment in Islam’s Sunni-Shia schism.

“This year is an exceptional year because of the virus,” said Riyad Salman, who heads the Department of Rituals at Karbala’s shrines.

The pandemic changed the ambience at shrines, he said, but as a second deadly wave of Covid-19 sweeps the world, it may become the new normal.
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