Last Friday, dozens of worshippers braved pelting rain — and defied the government — to gather for communal prayers at Hanifiya mosque in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. They ignored official orders to limit Friday congregations to just five people — part of a broader ban on public gatherings to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Many of the Friday congregants were elderly, like 72-year-old retiree Awal Khan, precisely the category of people who have been worse affected by the pandemic.
"It is all in the hands of Allah," said Khan, who clucked disapprovingly when asked if he was worried about the virus. He added he was standing "two or three feet" away from fellow worshippers, but still, he said, "we should fear God" – not a pandemic.
With the holy Muslim month of Ramadan drawing near – it is expected to begin April 24 – Khan said he looked forward to spending even more time in the mosque for evening prayers, as Muslims traditionally do during the month. But this week, he won't be breaking the law.
That's because authorities across Pakistan have now rescinded the order to limit mosque gatherings. The government now says its own rules about public gatherings will not apply for Ramadan.
Pakistan has more than 10,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 220 people have died.
The order to curb congregations was only ever spottily enforced, and it pointed to a particular issue in Pakistan: limiting group gatherings for worship is not easy in this deeply religious country.
Even as worshippers trudged into the Hanifiya mosque unhindered last week, a cleric in a hardline mosque in Islamabad taunted authorities by urging his followers to cram together tightly for prayers over three successive Fridays.
Sometimes, the resistance has been violent. On April 10, worshippers in the port city of Karachi assaulted a policewoman trying to block them from entering a mosque. A video of the event shows the officer shouting, "They attacked me! They tried to murder me! They broke my glasses!"
Even when authorities tried to limit congregations, like at the ornate Haidari mosque in Islamabad, dozens of worshippers simply crammed shoulder-to-shoulder on a nearby sidewalk and prayed there instead.
Part of the defiance stems from the fact that clerics see mosques as power bases for projecting their influence, said Madiha Afzal, Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State. "The clerics see people not going into the mosques physically as a manifestation of weakened power," she said. Their defiance of government orders was saying, 'Look, our domain of control is the mosque and you cannot take this domain of control away from us.' "
The pressure on authorities only snowballed since the order was announced. Worshippers angrily denounced the limits on congregations as the government restarted the construction industry and allowed some businesses to reopen last week, including stationary shops.
"People crowd vegetable markets. Government offices," complained one worshipper, 28-year-old civil servant Mohammad Zubair. "So — there's only corona in mosques?"
And clerics chafed against the order as the holy Muslim month of Ramadan drew near.
"Muslims must be in the mosques in Ramadan and pray in congregation during this time of trial," insisted Mufti Taqi Usmani, one of Pakistan's most prominent clerics, who spoke at a press conference flanked by other famous scholars. Perhaps there, he said, "worshippers may pray to God to end the outbreak that was sent by Him."
Days later, the government announced that mosques will be open for worship after consultations with senior clerics, including those who had flanked Usmani at the press conference.
"If worshippers want to go [to mosques] and we stop them by deploying police and putting people in jail – this is not what free nations do," said Prime Minister Imran Khan, explaining the about-face in an Urdu-language post uploaded to his political party's Twitter feed.
The agreement to open mosques for worship came with rules to try prevent contagion, including an order that worshippers wear masks and keep a six-feet distance from each other during prayers.
But some doctors have asked: If the government couldn't enforce a limit on congregations, how will it enforce this new tangle of rules? "In Pakistan, the laws and regulations are not strictly implemented properly," said Dr. Qaisar Sajjad, head of the Pakistan Medical Association
Sajjad was one of a handful of prominent doctors who wrote a letter pleading with the government and clerics to keep worshippers home.
"It will be a problem if mosques were open for prayers," he told NPR on Wednesday. "In Ramadan, the number of cases of coronavirus will increase dramatically, and it will cause a lot of problems for the doctors as well as the paramedics," he said. "We have a shortage of ventilators, a shortage of trained doctors."
He noted in an earlier press conference that authorities said if cases increased, they would review the decision to keep the mosques open. "Mr. Prime Minister, by then, it will be too late," he said.
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