Pakistani clerics refuse to shut down mosques

With no nationwide lockdown in place and with Islamic clerics refusing to stop allowing religious congregations, Prime Minister Imran Khan is relying on restricting the size of congregations attending mosques and advice to stay at home from religious groups to contain the spread of the new coronavirus at religious gatherings. By Haroon Janjua

By Haroon Janjua

In late March, Pakistani President Arif Alvi and provincial governors held a meeting with Sunni and Shia clerics to convince them to close mosques for congregational prayers across the country amid rapidly increasing COVID-19 cases in the country. The clerics, however, rejected the request.

"We can in no way close mosques ... It is not possible in any circumstances in an Islamic country," said Muneeb-bur-Rehman, a cleric who attended the meeting.

The clerics' blatant refusal to shun collective prayers raised doubts about Pakistan's resolve to fight the pandemic, which by 9 April has killed at least 63 people in the country and infected nearly 4,500.

Earlier in March, when coronavirus cases in Pakistan were relatively lower, the federal government allowed Shia pilgrims from Iran to return to the country through Baluchistan province. The pilgrims were not properly quarantined, which resulted in a spike of infections.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (photo: DW)
There has been much criticism of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's response to the pandemic: on 23 March, Khan announced that he would not implement a national lockdown because of the disastrous impact it would have on Pakistan's poorest

The government also allowed thousands of Sunni worshippers to go ahead with the "Tablighi Jamaat" congregation in Pubjab province. Many of the new COVID-19 cases have emerged from that mass gathering.

Health experts say the government's measures are inadequate, fearing that the number of coronavirus cases in the South Asian country could increase exponentially in the coming weeks.

Civil society activists say that Pakistani authorities continue to appease Islamists even when the country is facing a worsening public health crisis.

Clerics' defiance

Many Pakistanis have refused to offer their prayers inside their homes, saying that religion is more important than anything else.

"I offered prayers in the mosque on Friday. More than 300 people were in attendance and it looked like a routine Friday prayer," Muhammad Ashraf, a kiosk-owner in Islamabad, told DW at the end of March.

"The mosque is a safe place. I don't fear coronavirus," Ashraf said, adding that he intended to attend the next Friday prayer as well.

Muslims gather for Friday Prayers in Peshawar amid the coronavirus outbreak (photo: Reuters/F. Aziz)
"We can in no way close mosques ... It is not possible in any circumstances in an Islamic country," said Muneeb-bur-Rehman, a cleric who attended a meeting between Pakistani President Arif Alvi, provincial governors and Sunni and Shia clerics that was organised to convince the clerics to close mosques for congregational prayers. Only last Friday, hundreds of thousands of people across Pakistan defied restrictions and attended prayers. Pictured here: Muslims gather for Friday Prayers in Peshawar amid the coronavirus outbreak

Many Islamic countries have shut down mosques and banned mass prayers after the emergence of coronavirus cases. Saudi Arabia even closed down Islam's holiest site, the Kaaba, and other sacred mosques to contain the spread of COVID-19. But even these examples did not deter many Pakistanis.

"The pandemic is spreading due to our sins and because we are not following the teachings of Islam," Ejaz Ashrafi, a senior cleric belonging to the Tehreek-i-Labaik (TLP) Islamist party, told DW.

Ashrafi leads the Friday prayer at a mosque in the eastern city of Lahore. "People are still going to supermarkets, yet the state only wants to shut down mosques. We will continue to offer prayers in the mosques," he said.

Fawad Chaudhary, the federal minister of science and technology, told media that the coronavirus is spreading in Pakistan "due to the ignorance of religious clerics." Islamist groups decried Chaudhary's statement.

Rights groups say the government must act strictly against the clerics who are defying its orders.

"The laws clearly state that anyone who deliberately spreads diseases should be imprisoned or fined. Prime Minister Imran Khan's government seems to be completely helpless," Osama Malik, an Islamabad-based legal expert, told DW.

Murad Ali Shah, chief minister of Sindh province (photo: Reuters/A. Soomro)
A short time after PM Khan rejected the idea of a national lockdown, Murad Ali Shah, chief minister of Sindh province (pictured here), announced a full 15-day lockdown in his state "to save the people of Sindh from this epidemic"

Khan reluctant to impose a lockdown

On 30 March, Prime Minister Khan spoke to the nation in a televised address (his third in three weeks) and argued that the country did not need a complete lockdown. He said that his government could have shut down entire cities but chose not to do it because at least 25% of the country's population would have died of hunger.

Khan's own dislike for a lockdown has emboldened those who are downplaying the virus threat to Pakistan, say experts.

Health experts say there is lack of awareness about COVID-19 among people who are not taking the disease seriously.

In contrast to Khan's "strategy," provincial chief ministers have favoured the lockdown. Sindh's CM Murad Ali Shah of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has successfully implemented it to contain the virus's spread in the province. Political analysts say that the powerful Pakistani military is assisting provinces in enforcing the partial lockdown.

"Lockdown is the only way to stop the virus from spreading. The cases are expected to rise in the coming weeks if religious gatherings are not banned across the country. Clerics should understand the seriousness of the situation," Dr. Qaisar Sajjad, secretary general of Pakistan Medical Association, told DW.

Haroon Janjua

© Deutsche Welle/ 2020