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The Coronavirus Is Exacerbating Sectarian Tensions in the Middle East

Faced With a New Disease, Many in the Region See an Old Enemy

People wear protective face masks and gloves as they visit Tajrish market, Tehran, Iran, March 2020 Ali Khara / WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

The novel coronavirus is advancing across the Middle East, straining frail public health services and exacerbating preexisting political and sectarian tensions, both within states and between regional rivals. Most of the region’s earliest cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus, were traced to the holy city of Qom in Iran, whose renowned Shiite seminaries and Sayyida Fatimah al-Masumah shrine draw aspiring clerics and devout pilgrims from across the Shiite world.

Iranian officials have given conflicting accounts of how the virus first arrived in Qom, alternately blaming Chinese Muslim students in the city’s religious seminaries and Chinese workers building a high-speed rail line there. What has since become clear, though, is that once the virus reached Qom, a city of about 1.2 million people, it spread quickly. Iran’s government reported two deaths from COVID-19 in Qom on February 19, the first time it admitted that the virus

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