Iran's supreme leader suggested Thursday that mass gatherings may be barred through the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan amid the coronavirus pandemic, as Amnesty International said it believed at least 35 Iranian prisoners were killed by security forces amid rioting over the virus.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made the comment in a televised address as Iran prepares to restart its economic activity while suffering one of the world's worst outbreaks. He is also the highest-ranking official in the Muslim world to acknowledge the holy month of prayer and reflection will be disrupted by the virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes.
"We are going to be deprived of public gatherings of the month of Ramadan," Khamenei said during a speech marking the birth of Imam Mahdi. "Those gatherings are meetings for praying to God or listening to speeches which are really valuable. In the absence of these meetings, remember to heed your prayers and devotions in your lonesomeness."
Ramadan is set to begin in late April and last through most of May. Iranian public officials had not yet discussed plans for the holy month, which sees the Muslim faithful fast from dawn until sunset. However, Iranian mosques have been closed and Friday prayers canceled across the country for fear of the virus spreading among those attending.
Khamenei urged Shiite faithful to pray in their homes during Ramadan. Shiites typically pray communally, especially during Ramadan, which sees communities share meals and greetings each night.
Iran has reported over 66,000 confirmed cases of the new virus, with over 4,100 deaths. However, experts have repeatedly questioned those numbers, especially as Iran initially downplayed the outbreak in February amid the 41st anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution and a crucial parliamentary vote.
Khamenei's comments come after Egypt's Ministry of Religious Endowments on Tuesday called off all celebrations and late-evening prayer services for Ramadan in the Arab world's most populous country. Mosques and churches have already closed for prayer across Egypt. Egypt has over 100 deaths amid more than 1,500 confirmed cases.
Meanwhile on Thursday, Amnesty International reported that thousands of prisoners in at least eight prisons had rioted over their fears about potentially contracting the virus while incarcerated.
The rights group said it believed at least 35 Iranian prisoners were killed by security forces. There have been sporadic reports in Iranian media about the riots, with only one fatality claimed.
Amnesty, cited "independent sources including prisoners' families" to report the fatalities. It said security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to suppress protests. Footage earlier verified by The Associated Press showed thick black smoke rising over one prison in southwestern Iran.
"It is abhorrent that instead of responding to prisoners' legitimate demands to be protected from COVID-19, Iranian authorities have yet again resorted to killing people to silence their concerns," Amnesty's Diana Eltahawy said in a statement.
Iranian media did not immediately acknowledge Amnesty's report. Iran's mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Estimates suggest the Islamic Republic's prison system held some 150,000 prisoners just prior to the new coronavirus pandemic. In the time since the outbreak took hold, Iran has temporarily released some 105,000 prisoners. Those who remain held include violent offenders and so-called "security" cases often involving political prisoners.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has ordered the country's economy to slowly begin opening back up starting Saturday, leading to worries the nation could see a second wave of infections. The Islamic Republic's economy is suffering under intense U.S. sanctions after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, made a point to remind Iranians that the U.S. is the main enemy and mocked Americans who fought over toilet paper at stores and lined up outside of gun shops to purchase firearms.
"The problem of coronavirus must not make us ignorant of the plots of enemies and the arrogant power," he said.