Exclusive: From Tehran to Najaf, a pilgrimage fraught with danger

It’s one of the most dangerous pilgrimages in the world. Every year, despite the deadly menace of the Islamic State group, millions of Shiites make a pilgrimage to southern Iraq, to visit the shrines of Karbala and Najaf. For five days, our reporter followed a group of young Iranian students on their risky journey from Tehran, in Iran, to Najaf, in southern Iraq. She bring us this exclusive report.


It’s one of the most dangerous pilgrimages in the world. Every year, millions of Shiites flock to southern Iraq for the Arbaeen pilgrimage to Najaf and Karbala, two holy cities located south of Baghdad. The event marks the end of a 40-day mourning period following Ashura, the religious ritual that commemorates the death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson Imam Hussein, who was killed in battle at Karbala in 680 AD. Dressed in black, pilgrims arrive from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Gulf. They come to pay their respects at the shrine with the golden dome where the prophet’s grandson is buried. As a sign of mourning, they beat their chests against a backdrop of religious chants.

This year, nearly two and a half million pilgrims have come from the neighbouring Islamic Republic of Iran. To embark on this perillous journey, they must travel for almost two days on a long road, by bus or on foot, and cross the border between Iran and Iraq, one of the most highly secured in the world.

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We followed Fatemeh, a young Iranian student who is making the pilgrimage for the first time, against her parents' advice. She will get her first glimpse of the shrine of Imam Ali. Security is not a topic of conversation with her friends, despite the regular warnings from their group leaders. The tanks and patrols nearby are enough to remind them that last June, around 30 people were killed in a suicide bombing near the Karbala shrine. The jihadists of the Islamic State group consider Shiites to be heretics.

Before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iranians were banned from the pilgrimage and authorities made it difficult for Iraq’s Shiites, who make up a majority of the population, to take part. Since 2003, the number of pilgrims has steadily increased to 20 million last year and nearly 15 million this year. While the threat against them is now ever-present, Shiites want to use this pilgrimage as a way to celebrate their religion.

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