Coronavirus: Iranians caught licking holy shrines amid outbreak arrested

Two men who were filmed licking and kissing Iran's religious shrines amid the COVID-19 outbreak have been arrested, according to local media.

As of Sunday, 978 people have been infected and 54 have been killed by the virus, according to Iran's Health Ministry. 

The arrests were made after circulating videos showed the individuals licking the surfaces of Shi'ite shrines in the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad. Qom, the epicentre of the virus in Iran, is yet to be locked down in an attempt to minimise panic, Reuters reports.

A number of religious leaders have argued against calls to close Qom's Masumeh shrine amid the outbreak, with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's Qom representative reportedly encouraging continued visitation to the holy site.

"We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing. That means people should come here to heal from spiritual and physical diseases,"  cleric Mohammad Saeedi said last week, according to news outlet Al Arabiya.

According to the ISNA news outlet, a man who licked the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom and  claimed "it's full of coronavirus here" was later arrested. 

"I am going to lick here to take in all the coronavirus," he said in a video, according to Al Arabiya's English Twitter feed.

As reported by the Iranian Fars new agency, another man was arrested after he was filmed licking the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, saying: "I have come to lick the Imam Reza shrine so that I contract this disease and allow others to visit the shrine with peace of mind".

While Al Arabiya reports that Iran has yet to respond to increasing calls to limit access to Qom, Reuters claims that limitations have been imposed on who is allowed to enter and leave the holy city. 

COVID-19 is spread through the droplets disseminated when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The UK's National Health Service (NHS) is advising doctors that the virus is also likely to be present in other bodily fluids. 

This article was amended on March 3 because it did not specify that the men had been arrested. According to local media, the men have been arrested and the story has been amended accordingly.