By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Lisa Barrington
DUBAI, March 19 (Reuters) – Hundreds of Bahraini pilgrims are stranded in Iran, a country with which Bahrain has no diplomatic ties and is the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.
Jamal, who has been in the Shi’ite holy city of Mashhad with his wife and daughter since early February, told Reuters he was awaiting news of repatriation plans after a government-chartered flight was delayed last Thursday and again this Thursday.
“Yesterday we were ready to leave and then at the last moment they said the flight was cancelled without any explanation,” the 62-year-old man, who declined to give his last name, said by telephone from his hotel.
Bahrain’s Minister of Health, Faeqa bint Saeed Al Saleh, said in a statement that the government will repatriate all Bahraini nationals affected by the COVID-19 outbreak in Iran.
“Recent efforts have been affected by air travel disruptions; however, the government remains firmly committed to ensuring all citizens are safely repatriated, and is currently working to facilitate the return of the second group of citizens,” the statement said.
There are no direct flights between Bahrain and Iran, where the death toll from the coronavirus exceeds 1,200.
Bahrain repatriated 165 people last week on an Omani airplane. Authorities have said around 85 of them have so far tested positive for the virus.
Many Bahrainis go to Iran via Oman and Dubai on pilgrimage to Shi’ite holy cities such as Mashhad and Qom, where the outbreak in Iran began.
Bahraini national Reda Ali said his elderly father had died on pilgrimage in Mashhad last week from a heart attack. He now fears for his 75-year-old mother, who he said has pre-existing conditions, and for his brother.
“I fear a lot for those (pilgrims) … Most are old or retired people,” he told Reuters from Bahrain, voicing concern about the availability of medicine in Iran, which has been hit by Western sanctions.
“Many families in Bahrain fear for the unknown fate of their families,” he said, criticising Bahraini authorities for what he described as a lack of coordination or communication.
Bahraini authorities have tasked a foundation under the Justice and Islamic Affairs Ministry to cover the costs of nationals stranded abroad, Bahrain News Agency said.
Bahrain, which has reported 269 coronavirus cases, most of them linked to travel to Iran, has criticised the Islamic Republic for not stamping Bahraini citizens’ passports.
The two countries have long-standing differences. Manama accuses Tehran of backing Shi’ite-led opposition in the Gulf Arab island state, which is ruled by a Sunni Muslim royal family. Iran denies the charges.
For Jamal the priority is to return home.
“We remain in our rooms most of the time, we are fine. It’s just the anxiety of what’s happening in Iran and all the delays of our evacuation.”
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Ghaida Ghantous; editing by Gareth Jones and Grant McCool)