Pakistan’s decision to allow mass prayers during Ramadan raises COVID-19 fears

Special Pakistan’s decision to allow mass prayers during Ramadan raises COVID-19 fears
A worker sprays disinfectant at a mosque on Wednesday ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan during a nationwide lockdown in Karachi. (AFP)
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Updated 23 April 2020

Pakistan’s decision to allow mass prayers during Ramadan raises COVID-19 fears

Pakistan’s decision to allow mass prayers during Ramadan raises COVID-19 fears
  • Government to allow mass gatherings ‘as long as precautionary measures are observed’

ISLAMABAD: The government’s decision to allow mass gatherings at mosques during Ramadan has triggered concerns among Pakistan’s health care professionals, many of whom warn it may jeopardize the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite their concerns, prayer time attendance is expected to be high, especially for evening prayers.

Dr. Qaiser Sajjad, secretary-general of Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), told Arab News, “The PMA is concerned about the situation. We are worried that virus cases could go up because of mass gatherings. We can only hope the people will follow precautionary measures.”

He added that Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan had already warned that virus cases would likely rise by mid-May.

“If the two holy mosques in Makkah and Madina can extend the suspension of prayers during Ramadan, why not Pakistan?” Sajjad asked, adding that social distancing and isolation have proven critical to slowing the spread of the disease.

After a meeting between Pakistani President Arif Alvi and religious leaders on April 18, the government decided to lift restrictions on the size of congregations during Ramadan and implement a 20-point standard operating procedure (SOP) to prevent the spread of the infection.

“To violate this SOP will be like a sin, as all ulema and mashaikh (religious and spiritual leaders) have agreed on it,” Alvi said after the meeting.

In accordance with the procedures, mosques will have to remove carpets and clean the floors. Children and people over 50 will not be allowed to enter. It was also agreed that gatherings would follow a recommendation by the World Health Organization (WHO) for people to keep a distance of six feet from each other. But ensuring the procedures are followed may pose a major challenge.

Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) chairman Hafiz Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi told Arab News that it would be the responsibility of the government and religious leaders to ensure that safety measures are observed.

“If clerics notice any violation of the agreed SOP, they should immediately report it to the government,” Ashrafi said, adding that many religious leaders will offer taraweeh prayers at their homes to set an example for worshippers.

“People should also follow preventive measures against the coronavirus,” he said.

Khan said on Tuesday that if precautions at mosques are not followed during Ramadan, the government may review its decision on allowing congregational prayers.

“I urge people to pray at home, but if they want to go to mosques they will have to follow these agreed guidelines,” the prime minister said in a televised address.

Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) chairman Dr. Qibla Ayaz told Arab News the CII has been advocating worshipping from home for several weeks. “In recommendations issued on April 2 and April 9, the CII asked people to offer prayer in their homes,” he said, adding that it is the responsibility of clerics to ensure the implementation of the government’s safety guidelines.

“Of course, this will be a challenge,” he added.

One of the religious scholars who participated in the meeting with President Alvi, Maulana Hanif Jalandhari, said in a video message after the meeting that the implementation of the agreed precautions was a “national and religious responsibility.”

Religious authorities in many other Muslim countries are recommending that prayers be offered at home. “It has been established that Prophet Mohammed performed these prayers at home, and it is known that taraweeh is Sunnah and not obligatory,” the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, announced on April 17. “If the status quo persists, making it impossible to hold Eid prayer at mosques, people will have to pray at home and no sermon will follow the Eid prayer.”

Provincial governments in Pakistan have imposed restrictions on mosque gatherings since the COVID-19 outbreak began, allowing no more than five people to be present. But the measures have provoked a backlash in the country, with police officers who tried to enforce them sometimes facing violent resistance.

A sharp increase in COVID-19-related deaths has been recorded in Pakistan this week. More than 200 people have died, with over 10,000 infections recorded as of Wednesday.