FEARS OF COVID-19 SPIKE AS IRAN CELEBRATES NEW YEAR
By Alex Pollock
There is no doubt that the current coronavirus crisis will undermine the Iranian economy and lead to a major contraction in the country’s gross domestic product. The Iranian government has already announced a number of measures to support vulnerable social classes as well as businesses that will be hit hard by the current economic downturn. Yet with the government itself heavily burdened by budget deficits, external sanctions, mismanagement — what impact will these measures have? (Al Monitor)
COVID-19 in Iran
Iran is the most heavily affected country in the Middle East by the Coronavirus, with over 1,800 deaths and more than 23,000 people infected, with many health and aid groups suggesting those numbers are potentially much higher. A lack of availability of testing kits has caused a severe underreporting of cases in the country. While the government has taken steps like closing schools, universities, shrines, and religious and spiritual gatherings, many Iranians are still traveling and filling public spaces. Multiple former Iranian health ministers have written to the government urging for more radical steps towards containment. To date the Iranian government has been slow to impose compulsory quarantines due to the lack of available resources to provide assistance to the large low-income population. The number of new cases per day has risen steadily. Many Iranians are not currently practising suggested preventative techniques such as social distancing, in large part because of the celebration of Nowruz, or Persian New Year.
Effect of COVID-19 on Nowruz (Persian New Year)
Persian New Year was celebrated on 20 March with more than one million people taking to the streets of some of Iran’s largest cities. The holiday symbolises the coming of Spring and is one of the most popular times for Iranians to travel. The most common travel destinations include the northern towns on the Caspian Sea, along with the city of Mashhad. Mashhad is home to Iran’s most important religious site, making it a top destination for tourists. The restrictions placed on Iranians, due to concerns over the Coronavirus, were scarcely enforced as millions of people celebrated by continuing with their travel plans. One of the most traditional ways of celebrating Persian New Year is to visit as many members of one’s family as possible. While some Iranians cut back on familial visits because of the Coronavirus, Iranian health minister Alireza Raisi said many Iranians are not taking social distancing as seriously as is needed to prevent the further spread of the virus.
Current effect of US Sanctions on Iran
Tensions between Iran and the United States have steadily increased since US President Donald Trump withdrew from a nuclear deal and re-imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran in 2018. Further sanctions were placed by the US government this month due to drone attacks on a US military base in Iraq, following the US assassination of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani. Both the newest round of sanctions, and those previously in place have been blamed for Iran’s inability to combat its thousands of cases of COVID-19. Iranian authorities have said the sanctions are hampering its ability to import essential medical supplies and other vital resources. The United States has been urged by other foreign powers, namely the United Kingdom, to lessen the sanctions due to the current health emergency, but the US special representative for Iranian affairs told The Guardian that the “policy of maximum pressure on the regime will continue.” According to US officials, the sanctions are aimed at entities and individuals that provide revenue to the Iranian government that it may use to fund terrorist activities. While the US claims medical supplies are not included under the sanctions, many global banks have been hesitant to release aid to Iran due to wariness over US fines.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
Iran’s constitution establishes Shiite Islam as the official religion. But it also guarantees freedom of religion for official religious minorities: Armenian and Assyrian Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews. However, the law prohibits Muslims from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs, and apostasy is a crime punishable by death—as is proselytization. According to the Iranian government, Christians number 117,700, out of a population of 83 million. Estimates for converts to Christianity, however, range from 300,000 to 1 million, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. The global Christian satellite network SAT7, which operates in 25 countries across the Middle East and North Africa’s interactive satellite television programme, Signal, is giving a platform to Iran’s believers to share their stories of hope with the outside world as the ‘underground’ church in the Islamic Republic continues to grow. Signal is the first interactive programme of its kind giving a voice to Iran’s “secret church” at a time when many Christian converts in the country live under the constant threat of arrest and persecution.
The current health situation in Iran has forced many to self-isolate. Without normal activities to fill their time, many young people are spending more time online and watching television. Hashtag, a Christian television segment (produced by Sat7’s PARS service), has seen increased viewership and interaction, specifically among those aged 11 to 16. One viewer wrote in thanking the station for providing resources for learning about Christianity. Even though people are not able to meet in large groups and fellowship, the isolation caused by COVID-19 is exposing more people to online Christian resources. Some believers within the ‘underground’ Iranian Church are feeling even more isolated during this global health crisis, as meetings are curtailed. Throughout the isolation faced by the Church, outreaches like Hashtag and other programmes (hosted by SAT7), are recognising the opportunity this crisis has brought to share Christ with those hurting around them. They continue to partner and work to bring resources of hope to isolated communities.
Please pray with us:
- For Iranians to receive the necessary support to curtail the spread of the virus
- For SAT7 as they continue to produce programmes and resources during these challenging times
- For Iranian believers to be encouraged to share the hope of Christ with their families and friends during these times of heightened fear and uncertainty