Iran men who licked holy shrine face prison, flogging, as troops ordered to fight coronavirus outbreak

The two Iranian men who defied coronavirus warnings when they videotaped themselves licking holy shrines in Qom could face prison and flogging.

The now-viral videos of the two men began circulating over the weekend as Iran continues to work to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Officially known as COVID-19, it has killed at least 77 in the Middle Eastern country.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, put the Islamic Republic’s armed forces on alert Tuesday to assist health officials in combating the outbreak. Iran has seen at least 2,336 cases confirmed cases — the most outside of mainland China.

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Iranian media reported Tuesday that 23 members of parliament now had the virus, as did the head of the country’s emergency services. On Monday, officials confirmed that an adviser to Khamenei died from the disease.

Wearing disposable gloves, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a tree planting ceremony in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. Iran's supreme leader put the Islamic Republic on war footing Tuesday against the new coronavirus by ordering its armed forces to assist health officials in combating the outbreak that authorities say has killed 77 people. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Wearing disposable gloves, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a tree planting ceremony in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. Iran's supreme leader put the Islamic Republic on war footing Tuesday against the new coronavirus by ordering its armed forces to assist health officials in combating the outbreak that authorities say has killed 77 people. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

“Whatever helps public health and prevents the spread of the disease is good and what helps to spread it is sin,” Khamenei said, while photographed wearing disposable gloves ahead of Iran’s upcoming arbor day.

In one of the videos – already viewed more than 1 million times – a man is seen at the Masumeh shrine in Qom, saying, “I’m not scared of coronavirus,” before licking and kissing the gates. In another video, this one at a shrine in Mashhad, a man is filmed saying he is there to lick the shrine, “so the disease can go inside my body and others can visit with no anxiety.”

More videos began appearing on social media of men licking and kissing shrines.

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Two men were arrested and now face between two months and two years in prison and up to 74 lashes as punishment, MP Nasan Nowrozi said, according to the BBC. It was not immediately clear which two men were arrested.

Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad, who shared the videos on Twitter, told the BBC that "arresting these two people is not enough as the religious centers are still open in Qom and other cities where people are suffering from coronavirus."

In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, photo, a man disinfects the shrine of Saint Masoumeh against coronavirus in the city of Qom 78 miles south of the capital Tehran, Iran.  (Ahmad Zohrabi/ISNA via AP)

In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, photo, a man disinfects the shrine of Saint Masoumeh against coronavirus in the city of Qom 78 miles south of the capital Tehran, Iran.  (Ahmad Zohrabi/ISNA via AP)

Shiite shrines in Iran attract tens of millions of visitors annually, with many people spending hours praying near them, or kissing and touching them.

Since the outbreak of the virus in Iran, the government has requested the closure of major shrines in cities like Qom, Mashhad and Shiraz, but the country’s powerful clerics have rejected or ignored the notices.

However, some have taken measures to protect visitors, including disinfecting holy shrines. There have been no outright closures.

In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 photo, some Shiite pilgrims visit the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, Iraq, The Health Ministry said four new cases of coronavirus were diagnosed in the northern province of Kirkuk. It said the afflicted were members of an Iraqi family who had returned from a recent trip to Iran. Iraq announced the discovery of the first coronavirus case in the country on Monday in Najaf. Iraq had earlier closed its border with Iran to Iranian nationals but apparently Iraqis can still cross the boundary. (AP Photo/Anmar Khalil)

In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 photo, some Shiite pilgrims visit the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, Iraq, The Health Ministry said four new cases of coronavirus were diagnosed in the northern province of Kirkuk. It said the afflicted were members of an Iraqi family who had returned from a recent trip to Iran. Iraq announced the discovery of the first coronavirus case in the country on Monday in Najaf. Iraq had earlier closed its border with Iran to Iranian nationals but apparently Iraqis can still cross the boundary. (AP Photo/Anmar Khalil)

Some religious clerics believe the shrines, including the one Masumeh shrine in Qom, have divine powers that can cure diseases.

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Last week, Saudi Arabia announced it would temporarily block foreigners from traveling to Mecca and the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure at the center of the annual hajj pilgrimage, out of coronavirus concerns.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.