At least 11 hardliners from a mob accused of breaking into a shrine in Qom on Monday, in protest of the Iranian government’s decision to close the holy site to help control the spread of COVID-19, have been arrested.
"These people desecrated the holy shrine. They exerted force and broke the doors of the shrine," said Hossein Gharib, prosecutor of Qom, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported on Tuesday.
Qom was not the only city in Iran that faced such a challenge. The shrine of the eighth Imam of Shia Muslim in Mashhad also received a group of angry hardliners trying to break in while shouting religious slogans.
Iran, with more than 16,000 reported infections through Tuesday, and at least 988 related deaths, has been one of the nations hardest hit by the novel coronavirus. Economic and banking sanctions have further complicated recovery efforts.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, closing shrines in holy cities has proven quite controversial for Iranian officials forced to balance medical advice from national health officials with respect for popular, religiously conservative institutions in two cities struck hard by the outbreak.
"No one has ever been able to close down the shine. And it is now the health ministry closing it by [the order] of the World Health Organization," a protestor said, as seen in a viral video of Monday's attacks. "We resist. And if they want to close it, they must do it over our dead bodies."
Many religiously conservative figures and constitutions denounced the decision via social media but distanced themselves from the attacking groups.
"The closure of the shrine is hard for the believers, but it cannot be any excuse for desecrating the sanctums," said a shared statement by the holy shrine offices, as reported by Fars News Agency.
Hamed Yari, a conservative supporter of the system, called the attackers "domestic ISIS" in a tweet, which he shared with the hashtag "British Shia," partly blaming the West for influencing some Shia Muslims in Iran and diverting them into such attacks.
However, such condemnation didn't convince many who believe the move was a result of years of not holding hardliners responsible for their actions.
"It would be a valuable lesson for conservatives to learn, that extremism is bad, either at embassies or in shrines," tweeted Sadegh Hosseini, an Iranian journalist.
"There are shared challenges that all countries face dealing with the virus," Davar Sheikhavar, an Iranian sociologist, told ABC News. "But religion is what makes the working of coronavirus policymaking different here."
"The government treated the outbreak with religious considerations," Sheikhavar added. "Now it has gone out of its control, leaving it in a state of vertigo and exhaustion."