The spread of the latest coronavirus in Iraq has forced tourists to close major mosques, including Imam Ali’s ornate burial site, the fourth Islamic caliph, and Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) relative, in the shrine town of Najaf.
According to Reuter reports, each year, Maher al-Rubaye will wonder at the Imam Ali mausoleum of Iraq’s gold-leaf walls. Today, he often visits the shrine — by a television from his living room.
Only a few hundred meters from the mausoleum, Rubaye — at home due to lockdown steps — raises one hand in prayer toward the heavens and holds his cell phone with the other.
On the shrine ‘s screen flash images: its large square, marble floors and intricate calligraphy — and finally, the gleaming mausoleum itself.
“I visit you, Commander of the Faithful,” Rubaye recites, adding a COVID-19-mandated amendment: “…from a distance.”
Iraq has confirmed more than 3,000 infections with coronavirus and more than 110 deaths since the first case was registered at Najaf nearly three months ago.
Authorities have since instituted a national lockdown that has shut down airports, restaurants and schools, and banned provincial travel.
Despite the bloodiest years of sectarian conflict in Iraq, which saw suicide bombings attack religious sites and heavily populated communities, the closures were especially surprising as most shrines remained open.
However, over time, some shrines have established new ways of witnessing a centuries-old tradition for the faithful.
TV channels broadcast photographs from the mausoleums round the clock, and a hotline in Najaf offers a free audio guide for visiting the site.
“Salam aleikum”—peace be upon you — says a male voice in a recorded video, reciting the traditional Arabic muslim greetings.
“Welcome to a pilgrimage of Imam Ali,” it starts, pausing for the caller to recite the intoned prayer as he reaches the shrine in real life.
Nevertheless, it is an unprecedented adjustment for Iraqis observing this year’s holy month of Ramadan without their pilgrimage rituals.
“I’m dreaming of visiting the Imam Ali shrine, which we Shia normally pray at every single night in Ramadan,” Numan al-Saadi, another resident of Najaf, told Reuters.
“Today, I can only see it from a distance through my phone.”