Pakistan to allow Ramadan prayers despite virus threat

Pakistan to allow Ramadan prayers despite virus threat
Muslims offer Friday prayers outside a mosque during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Islamabad on April 17, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 19 April 2020

Pakistan to allow Ramadan prayers despite virus threat

Pakistan to allow Ramadan prayers despite virus threat
  • President issues 20 conditional guidelines for attending mosques

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.

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Thailand reports 1,390 new coronavirus infections, 3 new deaths

Thailand reports 1,390 new coronavirus infections, 3 new deaths
Updated 19 April 2021

Thailand reports 1,390 new coronavirus infections, 3 new deaths

Thailand reports 1,390 new coronavirus infections, 3 new deaths
  • Three deaths were reported

BANGKOK: Thailand reported 1,390 new coronavirus cases on Monday, slowing from six days of record highs, amid a third wave of infections in the Southeast Asian country.
Three deaths were reported. The new cases took the total number of infections to 43,742, with 104 deaths.


France restricting travel from 4 countries to curb variants

France restricting travel from 4 countries to curb variants
Updated 19 April 2021

France restricting travel from 4 countries to curb variants

France restricting travel from 4 countries to curb variants
  • Along with the mandatory quarantine, France is requiring more stringent testing for the coronavirus

PARIS: France is imposing entry restrictions on travelers from four countries — Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Brazil — in hopes of keeping out especially contagious coronavirus variants, the government has announced.

The restrictions include mandatory 10-day quarantines with police checks to ensure people arriving in France observe the requirement.  Travelers from all four countries will be restricted to French nationals and their families, EU citizens and others with a permanent home in France.

France previously suspended all flights from Brazil. The suspension will be lifted next Saturday, after 10 days, and the new restrictions “progressively” put in place by then, the government said. 

The flight suspension for Brazil will be lifted followed by “drastic measures” for entering France from all four countries, plus the French territory of Guiana, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

The four countries “are the most dangerous in terms of the number of variants that exist and in the evolution of the pandemic in these countries,” Le Drian said Saturday on the France 3 television station.

The list of countries subject to tougher border checks could be extended, he said.

Under the new restrictions, travelers must provide an address for where they plan to observe the 10-day confinement period and police will make visits and fine those who are found in violation, the government said.

Along with the mandatory quarantine, France is requiring more stringent testing for the coronavirus. 

Travelers must show proof of a negative PCR test taken less than 36 hours instead of 72 hours before they boarded a flight, or a negative antigen test less than 24 hours

France has reported the deaths of 100,00 people in the COVID-19 pandemic.

A variant first identified in England spread to continental Europe and is now responsible for about 80 percent of the virus cases in France, while the variants first seen in Brazil and South Africa make up less than 4% of French infections, Health Minister Olivier Veran said last week.


Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists

Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists
Updated 18 April 2021

Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists

Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists
  • Warning comes amid fears that new, India variant could become dominant
  • Virologist: “We’re still early on in the lifetime of this virus as a human pathogen”

LONDON: Humanity is engaged in an “arms race” with the coronavirus Sars-CoV-2, and its capacity to adapt and evolve remains unknown and should not be underestimated, scientists have warned.
“I think it’d be a brave person to say that the virus is nearing the end of its evolutionary route and can’t go any further,” Prof. Deenan Pillay, a virologist at University College London, told The Independent.
“We’re still early on in the lifetime of this virus as a human pathogen. It normally takes many years for viruses, once they cross the species barrier, to really optimize themselves to be able to replicate well within humans.”
Pillay’s warning comes amid fears that a new strain of Sars-CoV-2, known as the India variant — which has caused a surge in the number of cases of COVID-19 — could become a dominant global strain in the coming weeks.
The India variant is known to carry two mutations that could reduce the efficacy of a number of COVID-19 vaccines.
Whilst that has not yet occurred, the nature and speed at which the virus has mutated thus far, including in the form of the South African and UK variants, has caused alarm among the scientific community that the positive impact of vaccine rollouts could be undone in the near future.
Specifically, scientists worry about Sars-CoV-2’s ability to alter spike proteins, used to attach onto human cells, through mutations.
The spike proteins, referred to by Pillay as “keys” to entering human receptor cells, are the mechanism through which most of the world’s successful COVID-19 vaccines look to attack the virus, by training various immune system responses to identify them. 
One such mutation, E484K, has been found in the South Africa and UK variants. The India variant carries a similar mutation, E484Q.
The fear is that by altering their proteins, these variants could render them less visible to the immune system of vaccinated people, making it harder to ward off infection.
Aris Katzourakis, professor of evolution and genomics at Oxford University, said beyond altering the spike protein, mutations such as E484K could “unlock a whole load of other mutations elsewhere in the spike” that have not yet been identified by scientists, with unknown repercussions for the severity of the virus.
“E484K took about 12 months before it became something we cared about. Presumably, 12 months from now, there’ll be another one or two that are just as important,” he told The Independent. 
Prof. Stephen Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University, said he believes that rather than continue to mutate indefinitely, there “will be a limit on how far the spike protein can evolve. But I’m not sure we can accurately determine what that limit may be at this point.”


Pakistan police and rangers taken hostage in anti-France protests

Pakistan police and rangers taken hostage in anti-France protests
Updated 18 April 2021

Pakistan police and rangers taken hostage in anti-France protests

Pakistan police and rangers taken hostage in anti-France protests
  • Rioting has rocked the country since Monday, when the leader of the now-banned TLP was detained in Lahore
  • The protests have paralyzed cities and led to the deaths of six policemen

LAHORE: At least seven Pakistan police officers and special rangers were taken hostage Sunday by supporters of a radical party, officials said, after days of violent anti-France protests.
Rioting has rocked the country since Monday, when the leader of the now-banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) was detained in the second biggest city Lahore after calling for the expulsion of the French ambassador.
The protests have paralyzed cities and led to the deaths of six policemen, prompting the French embassy to recommend all its nationals temporarily leave the country.
“The TLP members are holding five police officers and two rangers hostage,” said Rana Arif, a police spokesman in Lahore told AFP, referring to the country’s paramilitary force.
Firdous Ashiq Awan, a spokeswoman for the Punjab provincial government, said 12 policemen had been abducted and taken to a TLP mosque in Lahore, where hundreds of supporters were gathered.
“Violent groups armed with petrol bombs and acid bottles stormed the Nawankot police station this morning,” she tweeted, adding that six police officers have now died in clashes this week.
TLP leaders say several of the party’s supporters were killed in Sunday’s clashes.
“We won’t bury them until the French ambassador is kicked out,” Allama Muhammad Shafiq Amini, a TLP leader in the city, said in a video statement.
The police would not comment on the reported TLP deaths.
An oil truck was seized and petrol bombs thrown at officers, both Arif and Awan said.
An AFP reporter at the scene said police used tear gas against stone-throwing protesters.
The TLP has been behind an anti-France campaign for months since President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of Charlie Hebdo magazine to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad — an act deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said party supporters had blocked 191 sites over the past week, with the mosque in Lahore now a gathering point.
“No negotiations are taking place, tried for two-three months but they are not ready to backtrack from their agenda and the government has no other choice but to establish its writ,” he said at a press conference.
Khan’s government has struggled to bring TLP to heel over the years, but this week announced an outright ban against the group — effectively labelling it a terrorist outfit.
Still, on Saturday he suggested the party hadn’t been banned for its ideology, but rather its methods.
“Let me make clear to people here & abroad: Our govt only took action against TLP under our anti-terrorist law when they challenged the writ of the state and used street violence & attacking the public & law enforcers,” he tweeted.
Khan said insulting the prophet hurt Muslims around the world.
“We cannot tolerate any such disrespect & abuse,” he added.
He also said Western governments should treat people who insult the Prophet Muhammad the same as those who deny the Holocaust.
“I... call on Western govts who have outlawed any negative comment on the holocaust to use the same standards to penalize those deliberately spreading their message of hate against Muslims by abusing our Prophet,” Khan tweeted.
Pakistan on Friday blocked social media and instant messaging platforms for several hours to head off major protests.
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in conservative Pakistan, where laws allow for the death penalty to be used on anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or Islamic figures.
The French embassy’s call for its nationals to leave Pakistan appears to have gone largely unheeded so far.

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Violence, insecurity threaten Afghan economy as investors flee war-torn country

Violence, insecurity threaten Afghan economy as investors flee war-torn country
Updated 18 April 2021

Violence, insecurity threaten Afghan economy as investors flee war-torn country

Violence, insecurity threaten Afghan economy as investors flee war-torn country
  • Official says capital flight last year led to almost $1.5 billion in losses

KABUL: Growing insecurity, political instability, and a lack of confidence in Afghanistan’s future has driven hundreds of businessmen out of the country, leading to almost $1.5 billion in losses last year for the already fragile economy, the deputy head of Afghanistan’s Chamber of Commerce and Investment (ACCI) told Arab News on Sunday.
“In 2020 alone, unfortunately, based on our estimates, 1,500 small-scale traders, investors and businessmen left the country because of infighting among government leaders, rising insecurity and corruption,” Khan Jan Alokozai said.
“Our unofficial estimates indicate that there was capital flight of at least $1.5 billion that was sent or taken overseas for investment last year,” he added.
Alokozai traced the investors’ exit to late 2014, when Afghanistan saw a drastic drawdown of US-led troops, resulting in infighting between President Ashraf Ghani and the then chief executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah following allegedly fraudulent elections where both claimed victory.
The power struggle between the two leaders was further exacerbated during the 2019 polls that allowed the Taliban to gain ground, even as regional commanders and self-proclaimed ethnic leaders “pushed for their type of future government.”
It also follows a deadlock in the intra-Afghan peace talks between Ghani’s government and Taliban representatives. The talks began in September last year and have failed to make any progress in the peace process.
Fearing a repeat of events due to internal divisions within the government — which led to the fall of the Moscow-backed communist regime in the 1990s, following the departure of the former Soviet Union’s troops — Alokozai said that a majority of investors had opted to settle in Turkey instead, with “60 percent of the private sector shutting down their activities in Afghanistan in recent years.”
He added: “These traders have bitter experiences from the fall of Dr. Najib (communist-era president), which happened as a result of an internal war, and they want to leave now.
“About 60 percent of the private sector has ended activities in recent years. Factories have closed, and only those involved in businesses such as food and fuel items operate. We had some $15 billion in our annual circulation, but it has dropped to $6 or $7 billion now,” he added.
The losses have trickled down to the tertiary level as well, since most Afghan investors and traders “spend 25 percent of their income on bodyguards and armored vehicles, apart from the losses they incur due to daily violence across the country and the payment of bribes,” Alokozai said.
He cited the example of a leaked video of Minister of Finance Khalid Payenda telling officials that “$1 million is looted from the customs division in the western city of Herat alone every day.”
Alokozai added that recent developments surrounding the deadline for the complete withdrawal of US-led troops from Afghanistan has also affected the market, “not because of the possibility of the return of the Taliban,” but due to fears that the departure could push the country “back into a civil war.”
He said: “There is a big mistrust among leaders and people about the future of the country and anarchy in government. The traders are not afraid of the return of the Taliban. There will be some social restrictions, but overall the Taliban have treated the business community well, because they do not allow corruption and mafia activities.”
Saifuddin Saihoon, a Kabul-based economic expert, agreed, and said that the loss of capital and investors would have a “long-term impact on the economy of Afghanistan,” which has relied on foreign funds since the Taliban’s ouster in the US-led invasion of 2001.
“This causes the economy to slow down, closure of factories and joblessness, and gradually an economic crisis, as well as psychological fears about the future of the country,” Saihoon told Arab News.