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
Worshippers pray at the East London Mosque & London Muslim Center in London, England. (Supplied)
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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.

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UK urged to intervene to stop illegal Israeli evictions

UK urged to intervene to stop illegal Israeli evictions
A Palestinian demonstrator is blindfolded and surrounded by Israeli security forces during protests against the forced evictions of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem. (AFP)
Updated 1 min 12 sec ago

UK urged to intervene to stop illegal Israeli evictions

UK urged to intervene to stop illegal Israeli evictions
  • Council for Arab-British Understanding: ‘The forcible transfer of an occupied population constitutes a war crime’
  • ‘The international community continues to condemn such violations, yet little or no action is ever taken’

LONDON: The Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) has urged the UK government and the international community to take political action to prevent the forced eviction, displacement and dispossession of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem.

“The UK government is well aware that the forcible transfer of an occupied population constitutes a war crime under international law,” CAABU said in a statement issued to Arab News.

“The international community continues to condemn such violations, including Israel’s illegal annexation of occupied East Jerusalem, forcible transfer of Palestinian populations and settlement expansions, yet little or no action is ever taken.”

Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, a district of East Jerusalem, have been fighting an Israeli court order — which CAABU calls “discriminatory” — that declared settler organizations the owner of numerous Palestinian homes, forcing the occupants out of their homes or into an arrangement that would see them pay rent to the settlers in exchange for the right to remain in place.

The UK should immediately intervene politically to prevent these evictions and dispossessions, CAABU said.

“A clear political demand that should be asked is a moratorium on evictions for Palestinians based on discriminatory law and that Israel stops applying such discriminatory laws,” it added.

Last week, the UK’s consul general in Jerusalem said: “The UK position on this is clear. East Jerusalem is occupied and it has been illegally annexed. The restitution and planning laws here, and their implementation, are unfair and they breach Israel’s obligations as an occupying power.”

CAABU welcomed the consul general’s statement, but warned that for Palestinians, “such words will do little to convince them that justice for them will be taken seriously unless the egregious human rights abuses related to their forced eviction and dispossession also come with actions and consequences for the occupying power, Israel.”

Joseph Willits, a parliamentary officer at CAABU, told Arab News: “There’s a lack of willingness by the (British) government to go further than issuing standard pro forma statements which issue condemnations, talk of a two-state solution and a peace process — but effectively, there’s no action.”

Willits echoed the demands made by over 80 British MPs in an open letter in February, which said: “All measures should be considered including reducing diplomatic engagement and banning trade in settlement products in full conformity with international law obligations in order to challenge the settler economy that profits from the occupation.”  

He said: “There’s a willingness from so many quarters, including among so-called progressives in the UK, to justify, ignore or remain tacitly complicit in such egregious human rights abuses. We need to begin to call this anti-Palestinian racism out for what it is.” 

He added: “If we’re unable to stand with, or speak up for, Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere, to help save Sheikh Jarrah, then human rights abusers globally will continue to rub their hands with glee.” 


Former Ugandan rebel commander Ongwen sentenced to 25 years in prison

Former Ugandan rebel commander Ongwen sentenced to 25 years in prison
Updated 06 May 2021

Former Ugandan rebel commander Ongwen sentenced to 25 years in prison

Former Ugandan rebel commander Ongwen sentenced to 25 years in prison
  • Dominic Ongwen was convicted in February of 61 crimes including rape and sexual enslavement
  • Ongwen was abducted by the group as a 9-year-old boy and forced into life of violence
AMSTERDAM: Judges at the International Criminal Court on Thursday sentenced a former Ugandan child soldier who became a commander of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army to 25 years in prison.
Dominic Ongwen, who was taken into ICC custody in 2015, was convicted in February of 61 crimes including rape, sexual enslavement, child abductions, torture and murder.
Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said the panel of judges had considered sentencing Ongwen to life imprisonment, the court’s harshest punishment, but had sided against it due to the defendant’s own personal suffering.
Led by fugitive warlord Joseph Kony, the LRA terrorized Ugandans for nearly 20 years as it battled the government of President Yoweri Museveni from bases in northern Uganda and neighboring countries. It has now largely been wiped out.
Ongwen was abducted by the group as a 9-year-old boy and forced into life of violence. At the same time, the judges found, he knowingly committed a vast range of heinous crimes as an adult, many of them against defenseless children and women who had been forced into slavery.
He was “a perpetrator who willfully brought tremendous suffering upon his victims, however, also a perpetrator who himself has previously endured extreme suffering at the hands of the group of which he later became a prominent member and leader,” Judge Schmitt said.
Prosecutors had demanded he get at least 20 years in prison, while his defense argued he should get no more than a 10-year sentence because he was traumatized as a child soldier.
The sentence can be appealed.

France ‘won’t be intimidated’ by UK maneuvers around Jersey

France ‘won’t be intimidated’ by UK maneuvers around Jersey
Updated 06 May 2021

France ‘won’t be intimidated’ by UK maneuvers around Jersey

France ‘won’t be intimidated’ by UK maneuvers around Jersey

PARIS: France “won’t be intimidated” by the deployment of British navy ships to the Channel island of Jersey, which is at the center of a standoff between the two neighbors over post-Brexit fishing rights, France’s European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said Thursday.
Beaune told AFP he had spoken with Britain’s minister for relations with the EU, David Frost, and added: “Our wish is not to have tensions, but to have a quick and full application of the (Brexit) deal.”


Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court

Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court
Updated 06 May 2021

Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court

Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court
  • Government resisting growing pressure to lift the Indian travel ban imposed last week until May 15
  • Almost one third of Australians are born overseas and most barred from leaving the country for more than a year

CANBERRA: Australia’s drastic COVID-19 strategies of preventing its citizens leaving the country and returning from India were challenged in court Thursday.
The government is resisting growing pressure to lift the Indian travel ban imposed last week until May 15 to reduce infections in Australian quarantine facilities.
A challenge to the ban by Gary Newman, one of 9,000 Australians prevented from returning home from India, will be heard by a Federal Court judge on Monday, Chief Justice James Allsop said.
The ban was made by order of Health Minister Greg Hunt under the Biosecurity Act which carries penalties for breaches of up to five years in prison and fines of up to $51,000 (A$66,000).
A libertarian group LibertyWorks took its case to the full bench of the Federal Court on Thursday against a separate order under the Biosecurity Act that has prevented most Australians from leaving the country without compelling reasons since March last year.
The government hopes to maintain Australia’s relatively low levels of community transmission of the virus by preventing its citizens from becoming infected overseas and bringing variants home. Travel to and from New Zealand has recently been exempted.
LibertyWorks argues that Hunt does not have the power to legally enforce the ban, which has prevented thousands of Australians from attending weddings and funerals, caring for dying relatives and meeting newborn babies.
With almost one third of Australians born overseas and most barred from leaving the country for more than a year, a win by LibertyWorks is likely to lead to a surge in citizens wishing to travel internationally. The three judges hearing the case will likely announce their verdicts at a later date.
The challenge to the Indian travel ban will be heard by Justice Michael Thawley five days before flights could potentially resume.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the pause was working in reducing infection rates among returned travelers within Australian quarantine facilities.
“The early evidence indicates that that temporary pause to May 15 is on track and that we are very hopeful and confident that on the other side of May 15 we’ll be able to start restoring those repatriation flights,” Morrison said.
A decision would be made before May 15, but Morrison could not say how long before that date that a decision would be announced. Around 20,000 Australians had been repatriated from India before the travel ban.
Newman’s lawyer Christopher Ward told a preliminary hearing on Thursday that the legal team wanted a verdict before May 15.
Newman’s lawyers argue that it is important that the minister’s power was reviewed by the court even if the travel ban was not extended.
The court cases were heard in Sydney where new pandemic restrictions were imposed on Wednesday due to two recent cases of community infections.
Masks have become compulsory in the greater Sydney area in all public indoor venues and on public transport from late Thursday and visitors to homes in Australia’s largest city have been capped at 20.
The measures follow a Sydney man on Wednesday becoming New South Wales state’s first case of COVID-19 community transmission in a month. The man’s wife on Thursday was confirmed as also being infected.
Authorities have yet to determine how the couple became infected with the same variant as a traveler from the United States had been diagnosed while in Sydney hotel quarantine.


Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong handed extra jail time for Tiananmen vigil

Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong handed extra jail time for Tiananmen vigil
Updated 06 May 2021

Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong handed extra jail time for Tiananmen vigil

Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong handed extra jail time for Tiananmen vigil
  • Pleads guilty to taking part in an ‘unlawful’ protest last year over the Tiananmen Square crackdown
  • Joshua Wong currently serving a total of 17.5 months in jail for two convictions linked to the 2019 protests

HONG KONG: Jailed Hong Kong dissident Joshua Wong was handed an additional 10-month sentence on Thursday after he pleaded guilty to taking part in an “unlawful” protest last year over the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Hong Kong has regularly marked the anniversary of Beijing’s deadly 1989 repression of protests in Tiananmen Square with huge candlelight vigils.
But last year’s event was banned for the first time, with police citing the coronavirus pandemic and security fears following huge democracy protests that roiled Hong Kong the year before.
Tens of thousands defied the ban and massed peacefully at the vigil’s traditional site in Victoria Park.
Since then prosecutors have brought charges against more than two dozen prominent democracy activists who showed up at the vigil, the latest in a string of criminal cases that have ensnared the city’s beleaguered democracy movement.
On Thursday, four of those activists – Joshua Wong, Lester Shum, Tiffany Yuen and Janelle Leung – were handed jail terms after pleading guilty to unlawful assembly charges last month.
Wong – one of the most recognizable faces of Hong Kong’s democracy movement – is currently serving a total of 17.5 months in jail for two convictions linked to the 2019 protests.
Judge Stanley Chan handed the 24-year-old a consecutive 10 months of jail for the new conviction which will start once current sentences are finished.
“The sentence should deter people from offending and reoffending in the future,” Chan said.
Shum, 27, was given six months while Yuen, 27, and Leung, 26, were both handed four months.
Wong, Shum and Yuen have also been charged under a new national security law Beijing imposed on the city last year.
Ahead of Thursday’s sentencing they were being held in pre-trial detention and face up to life in prison if convicted under the new security law.
The other defendants – who include some of the city’s most prominent activists, many of them also jailed or in detention – will be tried later this summer.
The annual Tiananmen vigil remembering victims of the 1989 suppression of pro-democracy protests has taken on particular significance as many Hong Kongers chafe under Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
Crowds grew in size in recent years, often chanting slogans like “End one party rule” and calling for democracy in China.
But it is unclear if Hong Kong will ever see another legal Tiananmen vigil.
Beijing has rolled out a sweeping crackdown against critics in the finance hub, with scores of opposition figures in detention, facing prosecution or fleeing overseas.
As well as the security law, a new campaign dubbed “patriots rule Hong Kong” will ensure everyone standing for public office is vetted for political loyalty first.
Officials have already signaled that this year’s Tiananmen vigil will be refused permission both as a security risk and because of the coronavirus.
Some have also suggested that chanting “End one party rule” – as well as the vigil itself – could now be illegal under the new law, which criminalizes a wide array of acts deemed to be subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces.
Chow Hang-tung, a barrister and a member of the coalition that organizes the annual vigil, criticized Thursday’s sentencing.
“The court has failed to draw a line between what is really unlawful, that is violence activities and what is completely within our rights – peaceful assembly,” she told reporters.
But Judge Chan said the four defendants’ attendance at the vigil was “deliberate, premeditated ... and openly defied the law.”
Protests can only go ahead in Hong Kong with police permission, something that has been routinely denied since the 2019 protests and subsequent coronavirus outbreak.
Chow said Hong Kongers would still mark each Tiananmen anniversary, even if the traditional vigil is banned.
“We will find a way to remember this and we will find a way to publicly do this,” she said.