Iran closed four major Shiite pilgrimage sites on Monday to stop an outbreak of the coronavirus that killed over 850 people in nearly 15,000 cases registered in the Islamic Republic.
The sacred shrines of Imam Reza in Mashhad, Fatima Masumeh in Qom and Shah Abdol-Azim in Tehran have been closed until further notice "on the orders of the Anti-Coronavirus Headquarters and the Health Minister," said state television.
Qom's Jamkaran Mosque also said it would close its doors, the official IRNA news agency reported.
People angered by the decision protested outside Qom's Fatima Masumeh shrine, some sang "religious slogans" and damaged the front door, reports IRNA.
The outbreak of the coronavirus has spread to all 31 Iranian provinces since it occurred in Qom last month, one of the worst affected regions besides Tehran and Khorasan Razavi, where Mashhad is located.
Health Minister Saeid Namaki said the shrines and "other holy places" had agreed to close until after the New Year holidays starting on Friday.
The move came after Iran said COVID-19 disease killed an additional 129 people, increasing the country's total casualty count to 853 from 14,991.
"Our plea is that everyone takes this virus seriously and in no way tries to travel to a province," said Ministry of Health spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour.
The disease has now killed at least 12 sedentary and former Iranian politicians and officials and infected 13 others who have either been quarantined or are being treated.
The last was Ayatollah Hashem Bathayi Golpayegani, a member of the expert assembly – an 88-member group of clergymen who appoint and oversee the country's top leader.
The 78-year-old Ayatollah died two days after being tested positive for the disease and hospitalized, the state-run news agency IRNA reported.
The novel corona virus also claimed the life of the well-known economist and political activist Fariborz Rais-Dana on Monday.
As a prolific writer with a doctorate from the London School of Economics, he had spent some time in prison after being convicted of spreading propaganda against the system.
Iran has been trying to curb the rapid spread of COVID-19 since the authorities announced the first two deaths in Qom on February 19.
Since then, it has closed schools, postponed cultural and sporting events, and discouraged travel before the New Year holidays.
Iran also canceled Friday's main weekly prayers, closed parliament, and postponed the second round of parliamentary elections.
In addition, the judiciary has temporarily released 83,000 inmates from prisons, apparently because of concerns about the spread of the virus in the prison system.
However, Iran has not yet issued a ban, and the official number of deaths and infections has continued to grow exponentially.
According to the Ministry of Health, the increasing trend is due to the increasing number of tests performed.
It is said that many patients showed symptoms days after infection.
Official tolls, which are charged every 24 hours, have generally lagged behind local media reports and have sometimes been rejected by the provincial authorities.
President Hassan Rouhani repeated his request that people should not travel.
In a video conference with the Iranian headquarters against corona viruses in Tehran, he expressed hope that the outbreak would soon be brought under control.
"If God wills, history will go this year … as days of victory over this dangerous virus," he said.
However, the head of a Tehran hospital said he was doubtful whether the virus could be contained without stricter measures.
"People tell us to stay at home, but how can we if (government) organizations aren't closed?" said Alireza Zali of Shahid Beheshti Medical University.
"We shouldn't confuse people," he was quoted by the ISNA news agency, adding that many vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women and those with autoimmune diseases, did not get vacation from work.
The latest figures from the Ministry of Health showed that Tehran Province had the most new infections with 200 cases.
The central province of Isfahan followed with 118 cases, followed by Mazandaran in northern Iran with 96 cases.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)