Worrying allegations that Iranian pilgrims visiting the Iraqi city of Karbala are impregnating women and spreading diseases on a massive scale have turned out to be nothing more than fear-mongering.
Saudi-owned news site Asharq al-Awsat claimed on Sunday morning that a World Health Organization (WHO) report had indicated an epidemic of “unplanned pregnancies and [...] disease” following the arrival of scores of unregulated Iranians to take part in the annual Shia pilgrimage to Karbala. The article alarmingly specified that 169 unmarried women had become pregnant from the visitors.
However, in a statement on its Arabic language website, the UN health body vehemently denied the reports and strongly criticized the use of its name to spread false news. It described the claims as “completely at odds with its principles”, adding that “it is currently investigating the source of the false news in order to take legal action against those who published it.”
It seems that this fake story was most likely little more than an attempted slur against the Iranians from a Saudi news agency. Tensions run high between the two countries who are engaged in a power struggle which extends across several proxy conflicts. These include in Syria, where Iran backs al-Assad’s regime, and Saudi Arabia supports the rebels, and in Yemen where a Saudi-led coalition is currently bombing Shia Houthi rebels which it claims (and Iran denies) are backed by Iran.
Most recently the countries clashed over the Hajj pilgrimage, with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggesting that the Saudi authorities were responsible for murdering 750 pilgrims who died in a stampede last year. Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh retorted by suggesting that Iranians were not Muslims, but rather the descendants of magi.
A desire to criticize Iran at any opportunity in this bitter war of words could explain, then, why a Saudi news source characterized the arrival of large numbers of Iranians in Iraq as “a loud incursion against Iraqi sovereignty,” and suggested that they would spread diseases in the country. Other accusations in the article against the Iranian pilgrims include: “trafficking fake currencies, drugs and sexual harassment against Iraqi women”.
In fact, the Saudi-Iranian struggle has a distinctly sectarian character, as the former is the bastion of Sunni Islam and the latter a Shia theocracy. Iraq, a country with a Shia majority and a sizeable Sunni minority, is a key site for such tensions to play out.
The Asharq al-Awsat story fits into such sectarian concerns as its accusations revolve around the occasion of “Arba’een”, the forty days after the month of Ashura during which Shia Muslims mourn the death of the Imam Hussein in battle at Karbala. His killing was a key moment in the early development of a rift between the Shia sect and what later became the Sunni sect. Shia traditions continue to be criticized as unislamic by many Sunni Muslims, hence the use of quotation marks in the article when referring to the Shia worshippers as pilgrims.
There was some criticism of the fake article among Iraqis on social media:
@SalmanAldosary جريدتك وضعت خبر كاذب عن كربلاء بشهادة منظمة الصحة العالمية ،، لماذا تخرجون عن المهنية وتنشرون الطائفية— نادر عبدالإمام (@NaderAbdulEmam) November 20, 2016
“Your newspaper has spread fake news about Karbala, as attested by WHO. Why do you leave professionalism behind and spread sectarianism?”
Tomorrow is the fourtieth and final day of the Shia period of mourning, and the culmination of the rituals of Arbaeen.
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