Every year, Maher al-Rubaye would marvel at the gold-leaf walls of Iraq’s Imam Ali mausoleum. He still visits the shrine today — through a screen from his living room. Just a few hundred meters from the mausoleum, Rubaye — at home because of lockdown measures — extends one hand towards the sky in prayer and holds his mobile phone with the other. Iraq has reported over 3,000 coronavirus infections and more than 110 deaths since its first case was recorded nearly three months ago in Najaf. Wooden stalls where religious trinkets and other souvenirs are usually laid out have been shrouded in plastic for weeks.
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But over time, some shrines have developed new ways for the faithful to experience a centuries-old tradition
The spread of the new coronavirus in Iraq has prompted the closure of major mosques to visitors, including the ornate burial place of Ali, the fourth Islamic caliph, and relative of the Prophet Mohammed, in the shrine city Najaf.On the screen flash images of the shrine: its large plaza, the marble floors, and intricate calligraphy — and finally, the glittering mausoleum itself. Authorities have since imposed a nationwide lockdown that has shut airports, restaurants, and schools and prohibited travel between provinces. The sounds of an occasional tweeting bird and the call to prayer five times daily — followed by an addendum to do so at home to avoid crowds — have replaced the din of bartering, clinking coffee cups and shuffling feet.TV channels air round-the-clock images from the mausoleums, and in Najaf, a hotline provides a free audio guide to visit the site.
“I visit you, Commander of the Faithful,” Rubaye recites, adding a COVID-19-mandated amendment: “…from a distance.”
The pandemic has battered Iraq’s religious tourism sector, which constitutes around half of its non-oil economy.
The billions of dollars generated from pilgrims annually create jobs for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis — constituting almost the only form of tourism in a country ravaged by decades of conflict.
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