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Virus-hit Iran to reopen mosques for holy nights

Iranian mosques and shrines, like the Fatima Masumeh shrine in the Shiite holy city of Qom, have been closed since March as part of government efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus
Iranian mosques and shrines, like the Fatima Masumeh shrine in the Shiite holy city of Qom, have been closed since March as part of government efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus MEHDI MARIZAD AFP/File
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Tehran (AFP)

Virus-hit Iran will reopen its mosques for three nights over the next week so that worshippers can pray during one of the holiest times of year, a minister said Tuesday.

The Islamic republic shut its mosques and shrines in March as part of its efforts to contain the Middle East's deadliest outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

The reopening was granted for Laylat al-Qadr -- a high point during the fasting month of Ramadan that marks when the Koran was revealed to Prophet Mohammed.

But Health Minister Saeed Namaki sounded a note of caution as he announced that worshippers would be allowed to attend mosques and ceremonies for three of the next five nights.

"The biggest strategic mistake is to think that coronavirus is finished," he said in remarks broadcast on state television.

"At any time, we can go back to bad circumstances" due to "negligence", said Namaki.

"Our priority is to hold ceremonies outdoors" such as "in stadiums", he said, "so that social distancing is properly observed."

Namaki said his ministry agreed in a meeting to help "organise ceremonies from midnight to 2:00 am during the nights of Qadr".

- Supreme leader 'concern' -

He said the move came in response to "concern" expressed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but stressed the supreme leader "always supports all measures" to contain the virus.

All gatherings would need to respect "sanitary protocols to the maximum", he added.

But he warned: "They shouldn't blame the health ministry and say they wanted to open mosques but didn't care about people's health".

Iran has struggled to contain its outbreak of the virus that causes COVID-19 since announcing its first cases in the Shiite holy city of Qom on February 19.

The government closed schools, postponed major events and banned inter-city travel but it has eased restrictions gradually since April 11.

It allowed mosques to reopen on May 4 in 132 counties where the virus was deemed to be under control.

And on Friday last week worshippers were able to attend the main weekly prayers for the first time in more than two months, except for in the capital.

The government warned on Monday of a setback in its efforts to contain the virus as the official death toll hit 6,685.

"We have regressed in Khuzestan due to (people) not observing health protocols," Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi said, referring to a southwestern province that is now the epicentre of the country's outbreak.

"This can happen to any other province if we are not careful," he added, noting that tighter measures would be reimposed in other places too if needed.

Experts inside and outside Iran have cast doubt on the country's official COVID-19 figures, and say the real toll could be much higher.

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