ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Saturday said it would conditionally allow congregational prayers, including Taraweeh and Friday prayers, in mosques during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week.
The announcement came after President Arif Alvi held a video conference with religious clerics across all schools of thought to discuss mosque gatherings in the holy month, amid rising cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Pakistan.
A day earlier, Alvi held consultative talks on the subject with religious and political leaders, including Jamaat-i-Islami chief, Senator Sirajul Haq, and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman.
“This is conditional permission for Taraweeh and Friday prayers in congregations in the mosques,” Alvi announced, and said 20 guidelines had been mutually agreed with the clerics which included keeping six feet distances between worshippers, the removal of carpets, disinfection of mosque floors and cooperation with authorities.
The government has been striving to discourage religious leaders from holding prayer gatherings in mosques amid the pandemic, but around the country, including in the federal capital, people gathered for Friday prayers with senior clerics openly defying government orders.
Worshippers in the Muslim majority country of 210 million people ordinarily gather in mosques in large numbers for special Taraweeh (evening) prayers during Ramadan.
But the government has urged that people this year exercise discipline and caution.
“This is a historic moment as everybody has agreed to the 20-point precautions and guidelines (for congregational prayers),” the president said. “Now it’s the responsibility of every individual to implement them fully.”
Though there are no official figures available, Pakistan is thought to be home to hundreds of thousands of mosques ranging in size from more prominent urban institutions to small community and village mosques dotted around the country. In the past, they have been historically hard to police.
Tahir Ashrafi, central chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) — the country’s council of religious scholars — told Arab News that the body was constituting special committees at district, union council and village level to ensure “complete implementation” of the government’s directions in mosques during Ramadan.
“We will support any government action against a mosque imam over violation of the guidelines,” Ashrafi told Arab News via telephone.
However, he said it was the primary responsibility of provincial authorities to ensure implementation was carried out as per guidelines.
“If this situation continues beyond Ramadan, we may sit with the government again to devise a consensus strategy,” Ashrafi said.
In early April, Pakistan’s largest Islamic missionary organization, Tablighi Jamaat, went ahead with its annual gathering of almost 100,000 people in the eastern city of Lahore.
Following this, the government had to quarantine 20,000 attendees, though the testing and tracking of all suspected patients remains challenging in the resource-strapped country.
The president said the government would review its decision if people failed to abide by the guidelines, or if there was a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases.
“The government has the authority to review its policy in specific areas and (for) those severely infected with the virus,” he added.
Alvi urged people over 50 years of age, minors and those suffering from the flu to stay away from mosque congregations.
“80 percent of our (COVID-19) deaths include people above 50 years of age,” he said.
“Ramadan is a month of forgiveness and salvation,” he added, and said he was hopeful all preventive measures would curb the spread of COVID-19 during Ramadan.
Pakistan has so far reported 7,481 cases of COVID-19, with 143 deaths since the first case was reported on Feb. 26. As part of containment measures, the country has been forced to take stringent steps including the partial lockdown of cities and closure of schools and offices except for a few sectors — bringing its economy to a virtual halt.