As Iran began inoculating citizens against COVID-19, an Iranian cleric told followers that the vaccine will turn them into "homosexuals," which in Iran is considered an offense punishable by death.
"Don't go near those who have had the COVID vaccine," Ayatollah Abbas Tabrizian wrote on his Telegram social media platform on Tuesday, according to the Jerusalem Post. "They have become homosexuals."
Tabrizian issued his warning as health officials in Tehran rolled out an effort to immunize people via the Russian made Sputnik V vaccine.
"The first person to receive the Russian Sputnik vaccine is my own child," Health Minister Saeed Namaki said at a Feb. 9 ceremony at Tehran's Imam Khomeini Hospital. Next in line were health care workers, according to the Iranian government.
The vaccination program was widely welcomed in Iran, which has been hard hit by the pandemic. The coronavirus ward at Shariati Hospital in Tehran at one point was like a "war scene," with elderly people and pregnant women falling desperately ill, nurse Somayeh Hosseinzadeh told Radio Free Europe. In one difficult phase, she worked back-to-back shifts for 40 days, Hosseinzadeh said.
Although Hosseinzadeh's caseload now allows her to see her family between shifts, the pandemic continues throughout Iran. In one day this week, the virus killed 89 patients, bringing the country's overall death toll to 58,625, health official Sima-Sadat Lari said in a Tuesday press conference.
Still, the Qom-based Shia cleric, Tabrizian, warned his followers to avoid the jab lest they turn gay. Although some in Iran have dismissed Tabrizian as a quack, he reportedly has some 210,000 followers on social media.
"You could laugh at him for saying such things, but it's not funny," said exiled Iranian Fatemah Rad. "The problem is, some people actually believe this nonsense. He demonizes an entire group of people, and he tries to scare people away from something that could help them."
Rad, whose family fled the Islamic Republic of Iran many years ago, questioned Tabrizian's standing to make medical or scientific claims. "How would he even know such things?" she asked.
Tabrizian has claimed a broad background in matters both academic and spiritual.
"His main specialty is jurisprudence and principles, and he also studied medicine in various ways," according to a biography on his archived web page. "He also studies and works in the field of mysticism, ethics, preaching, history and the life of the Prophet."
Last year, the cleric stirred controversy in Iran when he burned a medical textbook, claiming that "Islamic medicine" made such texts "irrelevant."
In his messages this week on Telegram, Tabrizian apparently did not say how long it would take for people to become gay after being vaccinated.