Shiite pilgrims poured into the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala on Friday for the rites of the holy month of Muharram, ignoring calls to stay home as COVID-19 spreads.

The pilgrimage is expected to be one of the largest religious gatherings in the Muslim world since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which already forced Saudi Arabia to hold the smallest hajj in modern history.

Now begins Muharram, the first month of the Islamic year, which will later include commemorations for the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein, killed in 680 AD at the Battle of Karbala, the seminal event in Islam’s confessional divide.

Usually, millions of Shiites from around the world flock to Iraq to commemorate the birth of their faith, praying, eating and reflecting together.

But this year, authorities in Iraq, Iran and beyond have repeatedly urged their citizens to forgo real-life pilgrimages due to the high risk of contracting the coronavirus.

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