UN Human Rights Office says 18 dead in Myanmar crackdown

Police hold shields in Taunggyi, a city in Shan State, on Feb. 28, 2021, as security forces continue to crackdown on demonstrations by protesters against the military coup. (AFP/STR)
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Police hold shields in Taunggyi, a city in Shan State, on Feb. 28, 2021, as security forces continue to crackdown on demonstrations by protesters against the military coup. (AFP/STR)
A wounded protester is carried during a protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. (AP)
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A wounded protester is carried during a protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 28 February 2021

UN Human Rights Office says 18 dead in Myanmar crackdown

A wounded protester is carried during a protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. (AP)
  • Security forces in Myanmar made mass arrests and used lethal force
  • A violent crackdown also occurred in Dawei, a much smaller city in southeastern Myanmar

YANGON: The UN Human Rights Office says it has received “credible information” that a crackdown Sunday on anti-coup protesters in Myanmar has left at least 18 people dead and over 30 wounded.
“Deaths reportedly occurred as a result of live ammunition fired into crowds in Yangon, Dawei, Mandalay, Myeik, Bago and Pokokku,” it said in a statement, referring to several cities in Myanmar. “Tear gas was also reportedly used in various locations as well as flash-bang and stun grenades.”
“We strongly condemn the escalating violence against protests in Myanmar and call on the military to immediately halt the use of force against peaceful protesters,” its spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani was quoted saying.
It would be the highest single-day death toll among protesters who are demanding that the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi be restored to power after being ousted by a Feb. 1 coup.
Security forces in Myanmar made mass arrests and used lethal force on Sunday as they intensified their efforts to break up protests a month after the military staged a coup. At least four people were reportedly killed.
There were reports of gunfire as police in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, fired tear gas and water cannons while trying to clear the streets of demonstrators demanding that the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi be restored to power. Photos of shell casings from live ammunition used in assault rifles were posted on social media.
Reports on social media identified by name one young man believed to have been killed in Yangon. His body was shown in photos and videos lying on a sidewalk until other protesters were able to carry him away.
A violent crackdown also occurred in Dawei, a much smaller city in southeastern Myanmar, where local media reported that at least three people were killed during a protest march. The fatalities could not immediately be independently confirmed, though photos posted on social media showed a wounded man in the care of medical personnel, and later laid out in a bed under a blanket with flowers placed on top.
Confirming reports of protesters’ deaths has been difficult amid the chaos and general lack of news from official sources.
Prior to Sunday, there had been eight confirmed reports of killings linked to the army’s takeover, according to the independent Assistance Association of Political Prisoners.
The Feb. 1 coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy after five decades of military rule. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party would have been installed for a second five-year term in office, but the army blocked Parliament from convening and detained her and President Win Myint, as well as other top members of Suu Kyi’s government.
Sunday’s violence erupted in the early morning when medical students were marching in Yangon’s streets near the Hledan Center intersection, which has become the gathering point for protesters who then fan out to other parts of the city.
Videos and photos showed protesters running away as police charged at them, and residents setting up makeshift roadblocks to slow their advance. Some protesters managed to throw tear gas cannisters back at police. Nearby, residents were pleading with police to release those they picked up from the street and shoved into police trucks to be taken away. Dozens or more were believed to have been detained.
Demonstrators regrouped later Sunday and security forces continued to chase them in several neighborhoods.
There was no immediate word on Yangon casualties. Sounds of gunfire could be heard in the streets and there were what appeared to be smoke grenades thrown into the crowds.
“The Myanmar security forces’ clear escalation in use of lethal force in multiple towns and cities across the country in response to mostly peaceful anti-coup protesters is outrageous and unacceptable, and must be immediately halted,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Live ammunition should not be used to control or disperse protests and lethal force can only be used to protect life or prevent serious injury.”
“The world is watching the actions of the Myanmar military junta, and will hold them accountable,” he said.
On Saturday, security forces began employing rougher tactics, taking preemptive actions to break up protests and making scores, if not hundreds, of arrests. Greater numbers of soldiers have also joined police. Many of those detained were taken to Insein Prison in Yangon’s northern outskirts, historically notorious for holding political prisoners.
According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, as of Saturday, 854 people had been arrested, charged or sentenced at one point in relation to the coup, and 771 were being detained or sought for arrest. The group said that while it had documented 75 new arrests, it understood that hundreds of other people were also picked up Saturday in Yangon and elsewhere.
MRTV, a Myanmar state-run television channel, broadcast an announcement Saturday night from the Foreign Ministry that the country’s ambassador to the United Nations had been fired because he had abused his power and misbehaved by failing to follow the instructions of the government and “betraying” it.
Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun had declared in an emotional speech Friday at the UN General Assembly in New York that he represented Suu Kyi’s “civilian government elected by the people” and supported the struggle against military rule.
He urged all countries to issue public statements strongly condemning the coup, and to refuse to recognize the military regime. He also called for stronger international measures to stop violence by security forces against peaceful demonstrators.

Czechs order Russia to pull out most embassy staff in biggest post-Communist era dispute

Expelled Russian diplomats with families wait in line to check in at the Vaclav Havel airport on April 19, 2021, ahead of their flight to Moscow. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)
Expelled Russian diplomats with families wait in line to check in at the Vaclav Havel airport on April 19, 2021, ahead of their flight to Moscow. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)
Updated 21 min 11 sec ago

Czechs order Russia to pull out most embassy staff in biggest post-Communist era dispute

Expelled Russian diplomats with families wait in line to check in at the Vaclav Havel airport on April 19, 2021, ahead of their flight to Moscow. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)
  • Row over 2014 deadly blast at Czech ammunitions depot
  • Russian suspects also accused of 2018 poisoning

MOSCOW/PRAGUE: The Czech Republic on Thursday ordered Russia to remove most of its remaining diplomatic staff from Prague in an escalation of the worst dispute between the two countries in decades.
The spy row flared on Saturday when Prague expelled 18 Russian staff, whom it identified as intelligence officers.
It said two Russian spies accused of a nerve agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 were also behind an explosion at a Czech ammunition depot in 2014 that killed two people.
Russia has denied the Czech accusations and on Sunday ordered out 20 Czech staff in retaliation.
Thursday’s decision, announced by Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek, requires Russia to have the same number of envoys as the Czech Republic has in Moscow. That means Russia will have to withdraw 63 diplomats and other staff from Prague, although Prague gave it until the end of May to do so.
Together with the initial step, this will greatly reduce what has been by far the biggest foreign mission to Prague and much larger than the Czech representation in Moscow.
“We will put a ceiling on the number of diplomats at the Russian embassy in Prague at the current level of our embassy in Moscow,” Kulhanek said.
“I do not want to needlessly escalate...but the Czech Republic is a self-confident country and will act as such. This is not aimed against Russians or the Russian nation, but a reaction to activities of Russian secret services on our territory.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry in reaction demanded a reduction in the embassy’s staffing level, alluding to disparity in numbers of local employees.
“The (Czech) ambassador was told that we reserve the right to take other steps in the event the hysterical anti-Russian campaign spirals further,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement.
At a time of acute tension in Russia’s relations with the West, the dispute has prompted NATO and the European Union to throw their support behind the Czech Republic, which is a member of both blocs.
“Allies express deep concern over the destabilising actions Russia continues to carry out across the Euro-Atlantic area, including on alliance territory, and stand in full solidarity with the Czech Republic,” NATO’s 30 allies said in a statement.
Slovakia expelled three Russian envoys on Thursday in solidarity with the Czech Republic. The Russian response to that step was not immediately clear.
In the last week, Moscow has also kicked out diplomats from Bulgaria, Poland and the United States in retaliation for expulsions of its own staff.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow took a negative view of Prague’s “hysteria.”
President Vladimir Putin warned foreign powers in his state of the nation speech on Wednesday not to cross Russia’s “red lines,” saying Moscow would make them regret it.

Embassy paralyzed
The Czechs say the loss of the 20 staff has effectively paralyzed the functioning of their Moscow embassy.
The Russian embassy’s size in Prague is an overhang from the pre-1989 communist era, and had been about double the US Embassy until this week.
Kulhanek said on Czech Television that Russia told the Czech envoy on Thursday there now would be “strict parity.”
He said that meant each country would have 7 diplomats and 25 others at respective embassies, which is the current level of Czech staff in Moscow.
He said the Czech side was considering how to proceed further after the Russian demand to cut the number of local employees.
The ministry said on Wednesday Russia had 27 diplomats and 67 other staff in Prague after the previous expulsions.
The Czech counterintelligence service has repeatedly said that the mission served as a base for intelligence work and its size made it difficult to reduce these activities.
The two suspects named by Prague in connection with the 2014 ammunition depot explosion, known under the aliases Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, are reportedly part of the elite Unit 29155 of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.
Britain charged them in absentia with attempted murder after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury in 2018.
The Skripals survived, but a member of the public died. The Kremlin denied involvement in the incident.

General: Afghan military will collapse without some US help

General: Afghan military will collapse without some US help
Updated 22 April 2021

General: Afghan military will collapse without some US help

General: Afghan military will collapse without some US help
  • Head of U.S. Central Command said as U.S. pulls out all forces “my concern is the Afghans' ability to hold ground”
  • U.S. officials have made it clear that military commanders didn’t recommend the full, unconditional withdrawal that Biden has ordered

WASHINGTON: Afghanistan’s military “will certainly collapse” without some continued American support once all US troops are withdrawn, the top US general for the Middle East told Congress Thursday.
Gen. Frank McKenzie also said he was very concerned about the Afghan government’s ability to protect the US Embassy in Kabul.
McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said that as the US pulls out all forces, “my concern is the Afghans’ ability to hold ground” and whether they will able to continue to maintain and fly their aircraft without US aid and financial support.
He said it will be paramount to protect the US Embassy and “it is a matter of great concern to me whether or not the future government of Afghanistan will be able to do that once we leave.”
McKenzie has spent the week detailing to lawmakers the steep challenges facing the US military as it moves to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, as ordered by President Joe Biden last week. Walking a careful line, the general has painted a dire picture of the road ahead, while also avoiding any pushback on Biden’s decision.
US officials have made it clear that military commanders did not recommend the full, unconditional withdrawal that Biden has ordered.
Military leaders have consistently argued for a drawdown based on security conditions in the country, saying that pulling troops out by a certain date eliminates pressure on the Taliban and weakens US leverage in the peace talks with the group.
Still, McKenzie said the Biden administration’s “deliberate and methodical” withdrawal discussion “was heartening,” implicitly drawing a contrast with former President Donald Trump’s penchant for making abrupt troop withdrawal decisions and announcing them by tweet.
In public and private sessions with lawmakers, McKenzie has been pressed about how the US will maintain pressure on the Taliban and prevent terrorist groups from taking hold in Afghanistan again once the United States and its coalition partners leave.
The US has more than 2,500 troops in the country; the NATO coalition has said it will follow the same timetable for withdrawing the more than 7,000 allied forces.
He told the Senate Armed Service Committee on Thursday that once troops leave the country, it will take “considerably longer” than four hours to move armed drones or other aircraft in and out of Afghanistan to provide overhead surveillance or counterterrorism strikes. He said it will require far more aircraft than he is using now.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking at NATO earlier this month, said the US will continue to support the Afghans after the withdrawal. He said “we will look to continue funding key capabilities such as the Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing, and we will seek to continue paying salaries for Afghan Security Forces.”
Austin and others have said the US will maintain the ability to counter terrorists in Afghanistan, but there are few details, and officials say they have not yet gotten any diplomatic agreements for basing with any of the surrounding nations.
McKenzie has declined to provide details during the public sessions.
He said there are no decisions yet on what size of diplomatic contingent will be left at the US Embassy in the Afghan capital, and whether it will include a security cooperation office. Those decisions, he said, could reflect how the US ensures the defense of the embassy. Marines often provide security at other embassies around the world.
Senators voiced divided views on the withdrawal, with comments crossing party lines. Several lawmakers questioned whether the US will be able to prevent the Taliban from allowing a resurgence of terrorist groups in Afghanistan who are seeking to attack America. Others asked if the US will be able to adequately account for how the Afghan government spends any American money.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. said there are concerns that a US withdrawal will create a vacuum in the country that China, Russian or Iran will fill. But Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., argued that the US presence in Afghanistan over the past 10 years has not led to much improvement. She said the government is still corrupt and the Taliban control a larger portion of the country than it did before.
The Pentagon has said it’s not clear yet whether any US contractors will remain in the country. The Defense Department says the number of contractors in Afghanistan started to decline over the past year or so. According to the latest numbers, there are close to 17,000 Defense Department-funded contractors in Afghanistan and less than one-third of those were Americans.
The total included more than 2,800 armed and unarmed private security contractors, of which more than 1,500 are armed. Of those 1,500, about 600 are Americans.

How Islamic charitable giving during Ramadan provides a vital social safety net

A picture taken on November 12, 2018, shows Maareb (3rd-L) sitting with her family in their tent at a (UNHCR) camp for displaced people in Hammam al-Alil, south of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (AFP/File Photo)
A picture taken on November 12, 2018, shows Maareb (3rd-L) sitting with her family in their tent at a (UNHCR) camp for displaced people in Hammam al-Alil, south of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 23 April 2021

How Islamic charitable giving during Ramadan provides a vital social safety net

A picture taken on November 12, 2018, shows Maareb (3rd-L) sitting with her family in their tent at a (UNHCR) camp for displaced people in Hammam al-Alil, south of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Zakat schemes help ease suffering in Muslim-majority countries as the COVID-19 crisis deepens economic hardship
  • Donor agencies, including UNHCR, are tapping into Islamic charitable giving to help fund their response in conflict zones 

BERNE, Switzerland: Charitable giving is part and parcel of the holy month of Ramadan for any Muslim who can afford it. Zakat, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, is levied on the property of those who meet minimum wealth standards (nisab).

In most Muslim-majority countries, zakat is voluntary, but in six (Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan Libya and Yemen) it is collected by the state.

When the state is well organized and zakat is applied systematically, it has the potential to become a fiscal policy instrument at the macroeconomic level, enhancing institutional capability in the social and welfare sectors. At the microeconomic level, its allocation to the needy serves income (re)distribution, reducing overall indebtedness alongside it.

However, in many countries the state lacks the institutional capability to perform this function, and in others zakat duties are performed on a voluntary basis.

Dr. Sami Al-Suwailem, chief economist of the Islamic Development Bank’s (IsDB) Islamic Research and Training Institute, says where the prevalent zakat channels are well organized and enjoy public trust, they can work well to alleviate poverty. Where this is not the case, informal philanthropic schemes automatically take precedence.

An IsDB study on charitable Islamic finance in North Africa found that “worsening social inequality and the governments’ need for additional financial resources in the region have created great opportunities for the zakah and waqf institutions” — a trend which is supported by civil society advocacy.

Well-developed laws pertaining to zakah and charitable giving are furthermore seen as an enabling factor for the sector and its ecosystem. These observations are general in nature and apply well beyond North Africa, going hand in hand with the greater need for charitable donations as poverty levels increase.

Some observers fear that zakat schemes can be opaque, lacking transparency. Al-Suwailem puts great store in blockchain and fintech applications to bring more transparency to the sector, enable more straightforward administration of charitable donations, and render the money transfer to recipients more efficient. These technologies are also helpful in raising additional finance.

The average wealth or income level in a country matters a great deal, because it will determine how much charitable giving comes from within and what comes from abroad. In a country such as Bangladesh, it would be impossible to raise sufficient funds, because the socioeconomic segment that meets nisab standards is too small to meet the huge requirements for social spending. This is where internationally active charities come in.

Indonesian women display their coupons as they queue to receive ‘zakat,’ a donation to the poor by wealthy Muslims, during the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Jakarta. (AFP/File Photo)

Multilateral organizations such as the UNHCR, UNICEF, UNDP and IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) have recently started to tap into the generosity of Islamic charitable giving in an organized fashion. Indeed, these organizations play a vital role in many countries where the state has ceased to function due to conflict.

In those countries, charitable giving is one of the very few ways of distributing food, health care, shelter and income to the destitute.

The UNHCR has been able to instrumentalize zakat giving for its purposes. The numbers of zakat beneficiaries rose from 34,440 in the period 2016-2018 to 1.03 million in 2020, which represents a multiple of nearly 30 times within just four years.

The purpose of zakat is to support the truly needy. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased inequalities between rich and poor within countries and also between countries. Nowhere is that more evident than in the poorest segments of the population and in the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries, which lack institutional capabilities, be it in the health care, finance or any other sector.

In its report “COVID-19 and Islamic Finance” the IsDB has recommended that zakat, waqf and other methods of Islamic social finance should be coordinated with the fiscal efforts of governments to provide a social safety net. They had the potential to play an increasing role when governments started to unwind their COVID-19-related spending programs.


* 25% OIC member states’ share of the global population.

* 54% Share of displaced people hosted by OIC member states.

Source: UNHCR

These countries are where institutions that are able to deliver zakat to the end user, be it in-country or at the international level, become very important. In order to understand the needs, we should look at the suffering and how populations in Muslim-majority countries are affected.

Refugees and displaced people rank very high on that agenda. They make up roughly 1 percent of the world’s population. According to the UNHCR, OIC member states are host to 43 million, or 54 percent, of the world’s displaced people. This stands against their share in the global population of 25 percent.

The league table for “people of concern” (refugees and internally displaced people) is led by Syria, followed by Turkey and Yemen. Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia are in places 5, 6 and 7 while Iraq and Bangladesh rank number 9 and 10.

A Muslim man offers ‘zakat,’ given to poor people during Ramadan, to an indigent man living under a plastic cover along the railway-line in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, on April 23, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

We can see similar trends looking at food security: Zero Hunger is after all the UN SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) number 2. Yemen tops that list with 15.9 million people facing food insecurity or outright hunger. All in all, five of the top 10 countries are OIC member states.

The UNHCR report highlighted the adverse effect of COVID-19 on food security in countries affected by the crisis of refugees and internally displaced people. In Syria the number of people struggling for survival increased by 1.4 million, bringing the total to 9.3 million.

In Pakistan, those suffering from food insecurity rose by 2.45 million people to 42.5 million. In Yemen, 9.6 million people potentially face starvation and 11.2 percent of all children in Bangladesh are severely malnourished. These numbers are shocking.

The countries listed above have neither the institutional capability nor sufficient ability to generate tax revenues or charitable donations in-country. They will rely on multilateral aid from organizations such as UN agencies and multilateral development institutions to finance part of the social expenditure required. However, given the enormous hardship and need, charitable donations become pivotal to lessen the suffering.

A displaced Yemeni family are pictured next to their makeshift shelter on a street in the Yemeni coastal city of Hodeidah. (AFP/File Photo)

The uses and sources of zakat funds at the UNHCR are telling: Yemen receives 55 percent of the organization’s zakat money, followed by Bangladesh and Lebanon — all countries where there is a huge need for funds from whatever source.

The UNHCR receives 97 percent of its zakat funds from the MENA region and 3 percent from elsewhere. This makes sense given the religious composition in the Middle East, which is predominantly Muslim, as well as its culture. MENA countries also have the ecosystems of charities that raise funds via zakat and other avenues of social Islamic finance.

Eighty seven percent of funds are received from institutional partners and philanthropists, and 13 percent are raised through digital channels. We can expect digital giving to become more prominent in the future.

The above information leaves us with four key takeaways:

* The needs for charitable funds are high in many Muslim-majority countries, particularly among less developed ones, for example, Bangladesh, and regions in conflict such as Yemen or Syria.

* The global refugee crisis is a case in point as OIC countries are disproportionately affected.

* Charitable Islamic finance is an important sector providing funds to development and potentially the redistribution of income on a regional basis.

* With the COVID-19 pandemic worsening inequalities both between countries and within them, the need for charitable funding has increased, necessitating the cooperation between state, multilateral and charitable actors.

Several donor agencies, including the UNHCR, have started to tap into the zakat system to widen their access to funding, which is a growing trend.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the pressing need to fund the poorest in the weakest countries. Indeed, the needs are so great, we should all give generously.


* Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources

Community spirit returns to UK’s mosques as Muslims enjoy easing of lockdown for Ramadan

Community spirit returns to UK’s mosques as Muslims enjoy easing of lockdown for Ramadan
Updated 22 April 2021

Community spirit returns to UK’s mosques as Muslims enjoy easing of lockdown for Ramadan

Community spirit returns to UK’s mosques as Muslims enjoy easing of lockdown for Ramadan
  • Gloom lifted after last year’s holy month fell during strict anti-coronavirus measures
  • Faithful revel in return to communal worship as restrictions eased across Britain

LONDON: British Muslims have expressed their joy and relief at being able to worship communally in mosques after lockdown restrictions eased in time for Ramadan.
Last year, the holy month came as the UK and many parts of the world shut down amid the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Muslims were forced to stay at home during Ramadan, a month usually characterized by worshipping with others and community gatherings. Many felt isolated and disconnected from their communities and routines as thousands of people died from the virus around them.
Striking images of the Grand Mosque in Makkah bereft of pilgrims and worshippers during Ramadan 2020 sent shockwaves through Muslim communities across the world.
“The most prominent image that I can think of (during the pandemic) is seeing the completely empty Grand Mosque in Makkah, an image that resonated with Muslims around the whole world,” the CEO of the Council of British Hajjis, Rashid Mogradia, said. “I never imagined that would happen during my lifetime or ever for that matter. It was quite upsetting.
“We took life and simple things like going to the mosque for granted.”
Although the pandemic is not over and the UK has lost 127,000 people to COVID-19 since it started, Ramadan 2021 is very different to last year.
Several vaccines against the virus have been developed in record time and more than ten million people have been inoculated in the UK so far, providing some protection and reassurance to society’s most vulnerable.
Lockdown restrictions in the UK eased on March 29, two weeks before the start of Ramadan. Unlike last year, communal prayer in mosques is allowed as places of worship were not required to close during the lockdown announced in January. However, strict precautionary measures have been in place to curb the spread of the virus.
Social distancing is being enforced, face masks must be worn, individual prayer mats and shoe bags used, and people are encouraged to perform ablution at home.
Only dates and bottled water are provided for iftar instead of full meals, and the length of the taraweeh prayer has been shortened.
“Ramadan 2021 is massively different to Ramadan 2020. There is an appreciation of the fact that you can enter mosques, break your fast and pray taraweeh,” Mogradia said.
“The mosques seem to look fuller than usual. That’s probably down to the fact that everyone is bringing their prayer mats and the social distancing. I am also seeing a lot more new faces at my local mosque. Those who didn’t come to the mosque as often are now attending, and that might stem from an appreciation for being able to perform prayers in the mosque. That’s really nice,” he said.
People in the UK are still not able to mix indoors with people they do not live with or who are not in their support bubble. This means that extended family iftar gatherings, a celebrated Ramadan tradition, are off the table.
However, Muslims are able to worship as a community during Ramadan 2021 and this has returned a partial sense of normality to the holy month. It has caused a surge in optimism and people feel less isolated and lonely because they are able to pray together and break their fasts, albeit briefly, with each other in the mosque.
“This time last year we were all on lockdown and we had to worship at home. Ramadan is about communal worship: Iftars and performing prayers and taraweeh together — that is back. We are able to move around and exchange Ramadan dishes with the neighbors,” Mogradia said.
“That whole community spirit is coming back and we actually feel as though Ramadan is here. Last year, we were confined to our houses. We are grateful that we have been given this opportunity. It also makes you reflect on how many people have passed away. It’s a great blessing to be able to partake in Ramadan again,” he added.
The secretary of Waltham Forest Council of Mosques (WFCOM), Said Looch, said that mosques have been working tirelessly to ensure the safety of their congregations and that COVID-19 precautionary measures are in place.
“From the mosques’ perspective, there has been a lot more preparation compared to previous Ramadans because of the precautionary measures that need to be put in place to ensure that worshippers are safe and following guidelines and protocol set by the government. Mosques have been working really hard to accommodate their local communities and we still want people to enjoy coming to their local places of worship,” Looch said.
He said that although communal prayer is back this Ramadan, sharing big iftar meals in the traditional sense is what a lot of people are still missing.
“Normally for iftar, huge mats are laid out and people bring lots of food to the mosque and everyone sits together. Sometimes you sit with your friends and at other times you share a meal with a complete stranger and become friends,” Looch said.
He said that keeping a one-meter gap between worshippers has reduced capacity by 60-70 percent in some mosques this Ramadan, and this has led to a change in ambience.
“Normally, when we pray in congregation, there is a real sense of brotherhood because you stand shoulder to shoulder with the next person. Now, there is a lot of space between people and so there is a different atmosphere,” Looch explained.
“The mosques are open but they are not fully functioning,” he added.
Looch said that despite all the restrictions to protect worshippers, mosques are trying to make people feel comfortable.
“We hope worshippers will get a spiritual upliftment from the mosque and that they feel like they have benefitted and want to come back again.
He added that a few Muslims had told him they had been more productive spiritually during Ramadan 2020 because they could worship at their own pace.
The media and communications manager for East London Mosque & London Muslim Center, Khizar Mohammad, said that although London’s busiest mosque is open this Ramadan, taraweeh prayers will be markedly different.
“The prayer will be shorter in duration, and people will be allowed to enter the mosque 20 minutes before and will be required to leave as soon as it is over. Volunteers encourage people not to socialize outside the mosque as they usually would,” he said.
Mohammad said that the popular mosque, which sees some 7,000 worshippers descend on it from around London on the first night of Ramadan for taraweeh prayers, will only be able to accommodate about 1,600 people due to social distancing measures this year.


Prison chaplain ‘conned’ by ‘remorseful’ London Bridge attacker 

Prison chaplain ‘conned’ by ‘remorseful’ London Bridge attacker 
Updated 22 April 2021

Prison chaplain ‘conned’ by ‘remorseful’ London Bridge attacker 

Prison chaplain ‘conned’ by ‘remorseful’ London Bridge attacker 
  • Usman Khan expressed shame over impact of his actions on UK’s Muslim community, before killing 2 in London attack
  • 2019 attack prompted review of Britain’s approach to detention, rehabilitation of convicted terrorists

LONDON: A prison chaplain who worked closely with a terrorist who attacked London Bridge has said he was “conned” by the man, who had shown remorse for his crimes and professed a desire to make a fresh start after his early release from prison. 
Usman Khan was freed in December 2018 after serving time for plotting to bomb the London Stock Exchange. 
Within a year of his release, he had killed two young Britons in a knife attack in central London.
Rev. Paul Foster, a prison chaplain who worked with convicts of all faiths, said while jailed, Khan had engaged positively with prison rehabilitation programs.
Giving evidence at an inquest into the deaths of Sakia Jones, 23, and Jack Merritt, 25, Foster said Khan “had conversations with me about wanting to change and make a fresh start — to pay more attention to the ripple effect of his actions.” 
Foster told the court that it would have surprised him to learn that while Khan was engaging with victim awareness courses, he was also attempting to radicalize other prisoners. 
The chaplain was told by lawyers that at the time of his release, there was intelligence that Khan might commit an attack.
“That would be a surprise,” Foster answered. “If that intelligence is correct, he was obviously presenting himself in a way that was likely to deceive the likes of myself and others. I’m open to say I’m wrong, and it’s possible I’ve been conned.”
Foster said Khan had spoken “openly and emotionally” during a discussion with the victim of a crime.
During one session, Khan expressed “some shame” over the impact of his actions on the UK’s Muslim community, Foster added. 
“We were being presented with a lot of positive things about his behavior — even some of the prisoners were telling me,” Foster said.
“In one instance a chap lost his son to a murder, and Usman was the person at his door offering his condolences and asking if he could help. He appeared to show remorse for what he’d done.”
The 2018 London Bridge attack prompted discussion in the UK over the efficacy of prisoner rehabilitation programs, as well as the policy of releasing certain prisoners early.
Since then, the government has announced measures that will enforce stricter sentences on people convicted of terror offenses, as well as wider monitoring of those convicted and released.