Iran to hold religious gatherings and exams despite virus surge

Bloomberg | Golnar Motevalli and Arsalan Shahla: Iran is planning to allow annual university entrance exams and mass religious mourning ceremonies to take place this summer even as the coronavirus kills record numbers of people and cases continue to surge.

President Hassan Rouhani said ritual public mourning processions, due at the end of August during the Shia holy month of Muharram, will go ahead “while implementing complete health protocols,” according to Iranian state media.

Millions of devout Shia Muslims gather for mass mourning rituals each year across Iran and other countries with large Shia populations including neighboring Iraq, Afghanistan and India. The traditional rituals involve elegies, self-flagellation and rhythmic chest-beating.

Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, told reporters on Wednesday that the country’s annual university entrance exam will also go ahead using social distancing and in full accordance with other government rules such as the mandatory use of face masks. The plan is to “follow up on social and economic activities alongside social distancing measures,” Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi said on Wednesday, Tasnim reported.

More than 1.3 million pupils have registered to sit the exams this year, which are scheduled to be held in three weeks time, according to state TV.

Iran has the worst outbreak of the coronavirus in the Middle East. The pandemic has worsened considerably since the government eased restrictions on businesses and travel in April. Infections started to swell in May, and this week the country reported an average 212 deaths each day from the disease, according to government figures.

Almost all of the country’s 31 provinces have been classified as “red zones” or “hazardous” by the Health Ministry. Last week, Rouhani said that at least 25 million people across the country had been infected so far.