In what appears to be a setback in Pakistan’s efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, people have flocked to mosques for Friday Prayers across the country despite fears such congregations could spread the highly contagious virus.
Congregations were held days after associations of Islamic clerics and individual prayer leaders asked authorities to relax restrictions on mosque prayers. The demand on April 14 came after Islamabad relaxed restrictions on the construction industry and some other businesses following a three-week lockdown.
But the relaxation of restrictions came amid a rising infection rate and the mounting death toll from COVID-19, the disease caused by a coronavirus infection. Pakistan, a country of more than 210 million people, has recorded some 7,300 confirmed coronavirus cases while COVID-19 has killed 137 people.
The Friday crowds have spiked fears about the spread of the coronavirus and revived calls for the authorities and clerics do more to stop people assembling at mosques. Many Muslim-majority countries have already enforced bans on such congregations for many weeks.
In Pakistan, however, the response has been mixed. On April 17, one of the largest Friday Prayers congregations was held at the Red Mosque in Islamabad.
“We believe the people should not be made to fear things right now. They should have faith in God at this time,” Maulana Abdul Aziz, a radical cleric in charge of the mosque, told Al-Jazeera. “"[Lockdowns are] not the answer to these problems.”
Pakistani media reports paint a mixed picture across the country, where some mosques have followed the official guidelines of enforcing strict physical distancing among worshipers and limiting congregations to five people.
In the northwestern city of Peshawar, for example, some 400 people assembled at the Darwish Mosque, where more than 1,000 worshippers usually gather. According to Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language daily, the congregation did not observe strict physical distancing. In other parts of the city, however, some clerics encouraged children and elderly to stay at home and told worshippers to remain at least 1 meter away from each other.
Noorul Haq Qadri, Pakistan’s religious affairs minister, said that in an April 18 meeting the country's top leaders would try to convince Islamic clerics to prevent crowds from congregating at mosques.
“We will be talking to them about prayers during Ramadan, when the faithful would like to flock to the mosques during [the nightly] Tarweeh and Friday Prayers,” he told Pakistan’s Geo TV earlier this week. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan is set to begin next week. All adult Muslims are supposed to pray and refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk for the month, when mosques attract large numbers of congregates.
A large number of Pakistani coronavirus cases have been linked to Muslim preachers and pilgrims. Some of the initial outbreaks and deaths were linked to Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni proselytizing group, and Shi’ite pilgrims returning from Iran. But a majority of infections now are contracted locally.
Islamic clerics have been reluctant to observe the government lockdown and particularly resisted restrictions on Friday Prayers, when larger mosques attract big crowds. On April 3, a mob attacked police officers and pelted their vehicles with stones when the police attempted to enforce a curfew on Friday afternoon in the southern seaport city of Karachi.
The authorities, however, seem keen to project an image of control over the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed some 150,000 people globally.
Asad Umar, Pakistan’s planning and development minister, attributed a recent spike in reported cases to an increase in testing. “[During the] last two days, an average of 5892 tests [were conducted] versus an average of 2,918 tests from April 10 to 15,” he tweeted on April 17. “[But] positive results from the last two days were 8.6 percent versus 9.6 percent from April 10 to 15.”
Umar added that Pakistan registered an average of 281 cases from April 10 to 15 but this number spiked to 509 on April 16 and 17.