Every year, Iraq’s holy city of Karbala witnesses the convergence of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in the weeks leading up to the holy month of Ramadan as many Shia Muslims flock to its shrines to celebrate the annual Shaabaniya pilgrimage.
Coinciding with the 15th day of the Islamic month of Shaaban, the pilgrimage marks the birth of the ninth century and twelfth Shia Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi, a revered figure who Shia Muslims believe will return as a saviour to humanity.
The pilgrimage is among the most important visits for Shia Muslims along with Ashoura, which marks the day that Hussein bin Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was killed in the Battle of Karbala and the Arbaeen, or 40 days of mourning, that follow.
But with more than 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country and at least 64 deaths as a result of the virus, the pilgrimage will be scaled down this year. Iraqi authorities banned public gatherings, including religious visits, and urged people to stay home by imposing a nationwide curfew until April 19.
Many Iraqis have, therefore, opted to perform their visits to Karbala’s shrines remotely, using free-of-charge phone services, live streaming on websites and by following satellite television channels dedicated to facilitating the pilgrimage from afar.
In addition to the curfew, Iraq has imposed travel restrictions and shuttered shrines across the country to curb the spread of the virus. Iraq’s top Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, declared weeks ago that the fight against COVID-19 was a “sacred duty”, calling on citizens to practice social distancing and avoid religious gatherings.
But only weeks ago, dozens of Shia pilgrims, mainly from among populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers, defied a weakly enforced curfew in order to visit the shrine of Imam Jaafar al-Khadim in Baghdad on the anniversary of his death.
To ensure stricter adherence this time, local and central authorities have issued several statements banning visits to Karbala ahead of the religious occasion.
“Our security forces are committed to enforcing the law. We’ve banned visits [to shrines]. Anyone who violates the curfew will be arrested,” said Khaled al-Muhanna, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, in a statement on April 1.
Karbala’s governor, Nassif al-Khattabi, who closed off the city weeks ago, also urged pilgrims to stay home, declaring the Shaabaniya cancelled this year.
“Our decision is clear and final. We are cancelling the visit,” said al-Khattabi in a television statement last week.
“We deeply apologise for this, but Karbala is completely closed off. No one is allowed to enter, not even officials. We are in a battle against the coronavirus.”