LAHORE: Pakistan remains the only major Muslim-majority state in the world that kept its mosques open during the holy month of Ramzan. Even as the holiest sites of Islam in Saudi Arabia and mosques throughout Iran have been closed over around two months now owing to the Covid-19 outbreak, along with shutdowns across the rest of the Muslim world, Pakistan hasn’t closed down its mosques at any stage of the nationwide lockdowns.
When the lockdown first began to be implemented across Pakistan at the end of March, over a month after the first coronavirus patient was reported in the country, and over two weeks after the World Health Organisation (WHO) had declared a pandemic, mosques still remained exempt.
While Sindh government enforced the lockdown in mosques on March 26, it wasn’t until noon on Friday March 27, an hour before the congregational jumma prayers that notices were issued in Islamabad and Punjab to limit the number of worshipers to five per mosque. The mosques still remained open, with violations continuing across the country.
After lockdowns were eased across the country, the question over the already insufficiently monitored mosques resurfaced, especially with the advent of Ramzan in the offing. On cue, the mosque restrictions were eased for Ramzan, with Prime Minister Imran Khan saying that Pakistan is an ‘independent nation’ and hence doesn’t need to follow what other countries are doing.
A 20-point guideline was issued for mosques, which addressed health precautions and set distance and age limits for worshipers. However, Sindh government continued to implement its lockdown and imposed a ban on taraweeh prayers during Ramzan.
With the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan crossing 16,000 by the end of April, and during the first week of Ramzan, the federal government’s insistence on keeping the mosques open was widely criticised. The doctors, already overburdened amidst limited healthcare facilities and growing number of patients, have rung alarm bells.
“The rulers have erred (by keeping the mosques open), andthe clerics have shown a non-serious attitude,” Pakistan Medical Association Secretary General Dr Qaiser Sajjad said.
Doctors in Sindh and Punjab urged the government to impose lockdowns in mosques, maintaining that a further hike in coronavirus patients would become unmanageable for nationwide hospitals. They also said that the 20-point guidelines issued by the government were ‘impractical’.
A Pattan Development Organisation survey has revealed that over 80 per cent of the mosques in Punjab have violated the 20-point guidelines. The violations include failure to maintain a six feet distance between worshipers and refusal to comply with mandatory wearing of facemasks.
Analysts believe that the large scale infringements were inevitable owing to the government’s inaction over mosques. Many also criticise the government’s refusal to act in accordance with the doctors’ instructions.
The government’s policy vis-à-vis mosques in Ramzan remained undeterred despite medical bodies, including Pakistan Islamic Medical Association (PIMA), writing a letter to the government requesting the closure of mosques.
“With Ramzan approaching, we would understandably expect higher number of namazis attending the prayers. Moreover, long taraweeh prayers and waiting times will lead to prolonged gatherings. It is all but certain that this will cause significant mayhem, as the mosques practising social distancing will only be able to accommodate 20-25pc of the regular namazis, which will further worsen the situation,” the letter read.
With less than a week into Ramzan, many feel that the government still has time to right its wrongs. Others, meanwhile, can only look and condemn the violations in mosques, amidst failure to implement a plan that was never workable to begin with.
“Nobody wants to close down mosques, but it will have to be done if there is a reason, and the clerics have to take certain responsibility, too,” says Religious Affairs Minister Pir Noorul Haq Qadri.
Nationwide doctors, and countless others concerned about the state of affairs wonder what that ‘reason’ to close down mosques would be, if not the most far-reaching pandemic in over a century?