‘This disease can’t catch us Muslims’: Many in Pakistan flout mosques coronavirus ban

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Waqas Ahmed says he offers prayers almost every day at a mosque in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi. He says that often a dozen or so men are in attendance – none of them wearing protective face masks.

Ahmed, 40, is among thousands of devout Muslims flouting Pakistan government orders issued late last month banning religious congregations of five or more people to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The disease has so far infected more than 5,400 people and killed 93 in the world’s second-most populous Muslim country.

“We Muslims believe that anyone who comes out to prayers after performing ablution will never catch a disease except death,” Ahmed said.

“This disease will not catch us Muslims at all, God willing, because we have firm faith in Allah. The infidels are scared; they are terrified with the spread of this pandemic,” he added.

The Islamic lobby holds immense influence in Pakistan, a country of over 200 million people. Religious parties have not been successful in electoral politics but they are able to whip up large, often violent, crowds on matters pertaining to religion, such as in support of the country’s harsh blasphemy law.

“At few places people have not heeded to us. We cannot use force because it is a religious matter and it is sensitive,” said superintendent of police, Kunwar Asif Sarfaraz.

But the worry is of a big spike coming from the congregational prayers held in mosques. The numbers in attendance at prayers are likely to increase with the onset of the holy month of Ramadan within two weeks, and authorities are struggling to cope.

While the Council of Islamic Ideology, a body that advises the government on religious issues, has called on clerics and the public to cooperate with government measures, several priests and local leaders have opposed the ban.

A prominent leader of a religious party told a crowd of hundreds of people gathered for a funeral last week that government orders to limit congregations were unacceptable.

In the capital, Islamabad, hundreds gathered on Friday (April 10) without any hindrance at one of the city’s largest mosques, located just two miles (three km) from the seat of Pakistan’s government, including parliament and the prime minister’s secretariat.

On March 27, authorities filed 88 cases against mosque administrations in Karachi and arrested 38 people for defying restrictions on Friday congregations, but charges were dropped a day later, and the people were released.

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