Pakistan to keep Mosques open during Ramadan

Government reversed course under pressure from the faithful

PAKISTANI SHI’ITE Muslims walk with a banner and signs during a protest against US and Israel over the death of Iranian Maj.-Gen. Qasem Soleimani, in Lahore, Pakistan, on January 12. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PAKISTANI SHI’ITE Muslims walk with a banner and signs during a protest against US and Israel over the death of Iranian Maj.-Gen. Qasem Soleimani, in Lahore, Pakistan, on January 12.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ISLAMABAD - Pakistan will permit mass prayer services during Ramadan as long as mosques follow 20 rules, including having congregants stay six feet apart, bring their own prayer mats and perform their ablutions at home.
Last month, authorities across the South Asian country ordered local mosque administrators to limit Friday prayer congregations to just five people, as part of a broader ban on public gathering to curb the spread of the coronavirus. However, as Ramadan approached, a growing number of people across the country refused to follow the restriction.
More than 96% of Pakistan’s approximately 220 million inhabitants are Muslim, giving it the second-largest number of Muslims in the world after Indonesia. There have been 10,513 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country and 224 deaths.
Meanwhile, the majority of the Muslim world has decided that Ramadan prayers should be offered at home.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a televised address to the nation on Tuesday, defended the government’s decision and said, “Pakistan is an independent country and its citizens could not be stopped from visiting places of worship.”
“We take decisions according to our situation,” he said. “Ramadan is a month of worship and people want to go to mosques. Do we forcefully tell them to not go to mosques? That could not happen in an independent society.”
The prime minister added, however, that it would be preferable if people prayed at home. He urged those attending mosques to follow official guidelines.
Khan warned that “if safety measures are not taken by the worshippers in mosques and there are reports of the spread of the virus, the decision can be reviewed without any delay. Then we would have no choice but to take action and close the mosques.”
Pakistani President Arif Alvi, a dentist by training, held a consultative meeting with top religious scholars from all schools of thought and sects on April 18 and announced that the government would allow special prayers during Ramadan if certain conditions were observed. They agreed on a 20-point guideline to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the holy month.
Under the guidelines, people above the age of 50, minors and those suffering from “flu” will not be allowed to enter mosques. Ramadan traveeh prayers should not be conducted on roads, footpaths or anywhere else other than in mosques, and mosque floors will be washed with chlorine disinfectant. Prayer mats will also be disinfected with a chlorine mixture, and congregational rows will be formed with a six-foot distance between worshipers. However, people will be encouraged to offer traveeh prayers at home.
In Islamabad on Monday, the prime minister met with the country’s leading Islamic clerics and scholars and asked them to ensure the implementation of the safety procedures during the communal prayers during Ramadan.
After the meeting, Noor-ul-Haq Qadri, federal minister for religious affairs and interfaith harmony, said, “Khan has asked the clerics to seek the blessings of Almighty Allah to accept repentance, forgive sins and help in the eradication of the deadliest coronavirus.”
Mawlana Tahir Ashrafi, the chairman of the Pakistan Ulema (Islamic Scholars) Council, participated in the meeting with the prime minister. He strongly denied that the government’s decision was a result of the Islamists’ pressure.
Ashrafi told The Media Line, “After several days of meetings and consultations with the country’s leading health professional and Islamic scholars, the government has allowed the condition-based congressional prayers.”
He continued, “Shopping malls, markets, offices and factories, ministries are open. Dozens of people are sitting and discussing matters on the TV channels, media houses are open, but only mosques are being targeted. Why?” He claimed that “some so-called liberals aim at creating chaos in the country in the wake of the coronavirus and are propagandizing against the government’s decision.
“The mosques are our ideological centers and the Pakistan Ulema Council assures that mosques have taken more precautionary measures as compared to other public places,” Ashrafi said. “The Pakistan Ulema Council is fully cooperating with the government in implementing its guidelines.”
He appealed to the public to stay safe by following precautionary measures and limiting social contact. “We have asked imams to strictly abide by official guidelines during the holy month,” Ashrafi said.
Mawlana Muhammad Sajjad Sajid, a Rawalpindi-based imam and prominent scholar, told The Media Line that “the government’s decision is a wise step because a devoted Muslim wishes to spend most of his time in the mosque, particularly during the holy month, but the worshippers must follow the official guidelines while ensuring personal care, too.
“The situation in Pakistan is quite different as compared to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. However, the traveeh special Ramadan prayer may be offered separately, inside the homes,” Sajid said.
Senior health professionals express deep concern over the government’s decision to allow communal prayer during Ramadan.
Pakistan’s top Karachi-based health professionals wrote a joint letter to the federal government and leading religious scholars on Wednesday, asking them to review their decisions to permit mass prayer. “Imams will be unable to make people abide by the precautionary measures to contain the spread of coronavirus,” the medical professionals wrote.
Dr. Fartash Sarwar, an Islamabad-based leading health professional and analyst, told The Media Line that “probably due to the strong pressure from the religious lobby, which seems to be in the driving seat rather than the concern for public safety, the government has permitted the congressional prayers.
“With the lack of random testing for the general population, one cannot be sure who is positive and who is negative [for COVID-19],” he continued. “In such circumstances, in a third world country like Pakistan, whose health system is as weak as its economy, the sane approach would be prevention, which is better than cure.
“If the virus is spread, will our health system be able to bear the brunt? The answer is an unequivocal no because our hospitals and our health system, in general, are grossly underfunded and lack the necessary human resources for such a calamity,” he said.
“Our only hope is to prevent the disease [from spreading] through maintaining coordinated social distancing and educating the masses,” Sarwar said. “Do we have any alternative other than that? The answer is still no.”
“If countries like Italy, Spain, China and the US have caved in to this disaster, Pakistan’s best bet is to follow the prescribed preventive protocols until a definitive treatment is on the market,” Sarwar said.
Prof. Dr. Liaqat Ali, a Lahore-based senior physician and a former Health Ministry director-general, told The Media Line that “despite all the precautions as stated by the officials and worthy Islamic scholars, social distancing cannot be observed during congressional prayers.
“Even if those over 50 and the sick don’t attend communal prayers, asymptomatic patients can spread the virus to others,” he said. “There is a possibility that a young person can catch it [during mass prayer] and then elderly people at home would be exposed to the virus, which would further worsen the situation.
“God forbid, in the case of a rapid rise in the number of coronavirus cases, the country would witness an acute shortage of beds, ventilators, health personnel and medical equipment,” Ali said.
Dr. Zafar Mirza, special assistant to the prime minister on national health services, told The Media Line, “The coming days are crucial and depend upon people’s behavior, whether they adopt official guidelines or not. The coronavirus is a preventable disease and its spread can be stopped if we take proper preventive measures.”
Mirza said the death from COVID-19 in Pakistan had risen to 1.7%, while the global fatality rate was 6.1%. Thanks to the government’s “effective and advanced preventive measures, the fatality rate is low as compared to global rate,” he said.
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