Mass Ramadan events in Iran may stop over virus, says Khamenei

AP , Thursday 9 Apr 2020

A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on April, 9 2020 AFP

Iran's supreme leader suggested Thursday that mass gatherings may be barred through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International said it believes at least 35 Iranian prisoners were killed by security forces suppressing riots by inmates over the virus.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made the comments in a televised address as Iran prepares to restart its economic activity while suffering one of the world's worst outbreaks.

He is also the highest-ranking official in the Muslim world to acknowledge the holy month of prayer and reflection will be disrupted by the virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes.

``We are going to be deprived of public gatherings of the month of Ramadan,'' Khamenei said during a speech marking the birth of revered 9th century Shia Imam Mahdi. ``In the absence of these meetings, remember to heed your prayers and devotions in your lonesomeness.''

Ramadan is to begin in late April and last through most of May. Iranian public officials had not yet discussed plans for the holy month, which sees the Muslim faithful fast from dawn until sunset.

However, Iranian mosques have been closed and Friday prayers canceled across the country for fear of contagion.

Khamenei urged the Shia faithful to pray in their homes during Ramadan. Shias typically pray communally, especially during Ramadan, which sees communities share large meals and greetings each night.

Iran has reported over 66,000 confirmed cases of the new virus, with over 4,100 deaths. However, experts have repeatedly questioned those numbers, especially as Iran initially downplayed the outbreak in February amid the 41st anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution and a crucial parliamentary vote.

Iranian media did not immediately acknowledge Amnesty's report. Iran's mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Estimates suggest the Islamic Republic's prison system held some 150,000 prisoners just prior to the new coronavirus pandemic. In the time since the outbreak took hold, Iran has temporarily released some 105,000 prisoners.

Those who remain held include violent offenders and so-called ``security'' cases, which often translates to political prisoners.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has ordered the country's economy to slowly begin opening back up starting Saturday, leading to worries the nation could see a second wave of infections.

The Islamic Republic's economy is suffering under intense US sanctions after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, made a point to remind Iranians that the US is the main enemy and mocked Americans who fought over toilet paper at stores and lined up outside of gun shops to purchase firearms.

``The problem of coronavirus must not make us ignorant of the plots of enemies and the arrogant power,`` he said. 

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