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Iran's Second Largest City At Risk Of Coronavirus Disaster

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Iran's second largest city and a pilgrim destination, Mashhad, is facing the threat of turning into a new coronavirus (COVID-19) hotspot if immediate measures including a lockdown are not put into effect, local officials warned on Saturday. The situation seems critical enough to have forced the powerful ultraconservative religious and political establishment of the city to capitulate and shut down the city's shrine for three days.

On Saturday several officials including the governor of Khorasan Razavi Province of which Mashhad is the capital, the Chairman of the City Council of Mashhad, as well as several citizens' groups and student bodies raised the alarm and called on the authorities to quarantine the city.

"Much of the worst we had predicted is happening now," Mohammad-Reza Kalaiee, the reformist Mayor of Mashhad who since the early days of the outbreak has advocated quarantining the city wrote on his Instagram page on Friday. He has just recovered from the infection himself.

On Saturday, the Governor of Mashhad said the decision to quarantine the city with its three million inhabitants needs to be taken by the Coronavirus Task Force. The Taskforce itself has been suffering from lack of leadership with required authority.

The decisions that the Taskforce has made so far appear to have been overruled by other centers of power including the clerical establishment and the Revolutionary Guard but on Friday Khamenei appointed the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, to manage the coronavirus situation.

The clerics' acceptance of as much as closing the shrine for three days may have something to do with the Khamenei's appointed General being in charge instead of Rouhani and his government now.

Since the very early days of the epidemic in the country the ultraconservative clerics of Mashhad strongly resisted cancellation of religious events including Friday prayers. Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday Prayer Imam of the city who is also the Custodian of the Shrine of Imam Reza, and Khamenei's representative in the Province said the government order on February 28 to cancel the prayers in major cities was not "justifiable" because holding the prayers is "God's command". He has now even consented to holding "virtual" religious ceremonies.
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