A day after millions of Shiite Muslims marked Arbaeen, the annual pilgrimage to the Hussein mosque in the Iraqi city of Karbala, the front pages of Iranian dailies on Nov. 21 carried large photos of the ceremony along with headlines comparing Arbaeen with the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.
Arbaeen, meaning “40” in Arabic, takes place on the 40th day after the anniversary of the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein bin Ali in A.D. 680. It is the continuation of mourning that begins on Ashura, the day that marks the killing of Hussein in a battle in Karbala.
The ceremony, one of the world's largest religious events, has gained more significance in recent years due to the wars and sectarian confrontation in the Middle East. This year, about 2 million Iranian Shiite faithful traveled to Karbala from border crossing points where only a few decades ago some of the fiercest fighting of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War took place.
On Nov. 21, with the headline “Hajj for Hussein,” the Reformist daily Etemad covered the religious ritual through a correspondent sent to the Iran-Iraq border. “One does not need to be in Iraq to understand the immensity of the biggest gathering of the Shiite world,” the report said. “All paths [from Iran] leading to Karbala were flooded with black-clad pilgrims walking tens of kilometers to reach Imam Hussein’s holy shrine.”
In addition, the daily published a literary piece on its front page that explains why Ashura and Arbaeen have contemporary political importance for Shiites. “Imam Hussein was the person who rebelled against the ruler of his time and against their complacent heaven and delectation,” wrote Etemad.
This year, ordinary people were not the only Iranian participants in the Arbaeen pilgrimage. According to Ettelaat newspaper, Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and the new Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs Masoud Soltanifar joined the pilgrims walking the distance between Najaf and Karbala.
The moderate center-right newspaper Jomhouri-e-Eslami reported, “[About] 1,400 years have passed since the Ashura incident [when Imam Hussein was killed], but this year, once again, an enormous number of people from across the world went to Karbala on foot to pledge allegiance to Imam Hussein.” The daily also stressed the hospitality of Iraqis and the success of security forces in keeping Karbala safe.
Under the headline “Western, Hebrew, Arabic Media Censorship of the Greatest Incident of History,” the conservative Kayhan daily criticized the mainstream media for not providing “proper coverage” of Arbaeen. In this vein, the conservative Javan daily echoed the same sentiment with the headline “Boycott of Arbaeen: Western and Arabic media don’t see 20 million pilgrims.”
Meanwhile, a social media campaign, using the hashtag #thanksarbaeenhosts, has been organized by the government-sanctioned Karbobala website to show the gratitude of Iranians toward their Iraqi hosts. Using the hashtag, Iranians have posted videos and photos of Iraqis providing food, medical support and help to visiting Shiite pilgrims.