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Pakistan Launches ‘Islam Friendly’ Action Plan to Keep Mosques Open

Pakistan Launches ‘Islam Friendly’ Action Plan to Keep Mosques Open

Over the weekend, the President of Pakistan, Arif Alvi, announced that the country would not close its mosques for the congregational land Taraweeh prayers during the month of Ramadan despite threats posed by the coronavirus outbreak. Alvi announced that his government had agreed to a 20-point action plan with the country’s prominent religious leadership after mosques across the country refused to implement shut-downs.

The agreed action plan aims to take precautions to ensure that the virus does not spread among the congregations. Indeed, the country’s clerical establishment announced that they endorse the action plan. However, critics say the move represents both a threat to healthcare needs amidst the worsening COVID-19 crisis, and a display of the Pakistani Government’s weakness against the religious establishment.

The 20-Point action plan entails numerous precautions against the coronavirus

The 20-point plan agreed between Alvi and the clerical establishment will see the following actions implemented across mosques in Pakistan:

  • There will be no carpets. People will be encouraged to bring their own prayer mats which will be disinfected with a chlorine mixture. Mosque floors will also be regularly disinfected.
  • Social distancing is to be observed. This will entail barring elderly and sick people from mosques; congregational rows to be formed with a 6ft distance between worshippers; for mosques that have compounds, people will pray outside; masks are to be worn; no handshakes and hugs to be allowed and post-prayer discussions are to be cancelled.
  • People will be expected to perform ablutions at home. People will also be encouraged to offer taraweeh and observe i’tekaf at home while any taraweeh preparations will be made in mosque premises and not at home. Mosques will also not offer suhoor (break meal before dawn) and iftaar (meal after opening the fast at sunset) preparations.
  • In order to ensure compliance, committees will be formed to ensure preventative steps, with the mosque administration responsible for enforcement and police allowed to ensure social distancing is maintained. The government can also review its policies if the measures are not followed or if a rise of cases is observed.

During the announcement, Alvi told citizens that nobody wanted to lock down mosques and the matter of shutting down mosques was out of the question. He noted that the responsibility for following precautionary measures was up to each individual, noting that self-discipline is part of the Islamic faith and should not be forced upon the masses, even if consensus between religious and government authorities makes it imperative for people to follow them. Alvi also encouraged people to not withhold donations from mosques and Islamic foundations.

Pakistan struggled with shutting down mosques to contain the coronavirus

Although the announcement for the plan came with an impression of consensus between government and religious authorities, the process has been far from smooth. In the weeks leading up to the decision, there was widespread disagreements both between government and religious officials, as well as among religious officials themselves, resulting in inconsistent application of social-distancing. Religious officials, in particular, claimed that the shut-downs were being implemented to deliberately target religion and mosques. Last Tuesday, a pledge by religious leaders to keep mosques open was published, but this was rescinded two days later. This culminated on Friday which saw large crowds gather for prayers across the country, including the Red Mosque in Islamabad which was packed despite the risk of outbreak. At times, efforts to close mosques or enforce social distancing turned violent, with a police officer attacked by mobs in Karachi when trying to stop a large group of people moving to a mosque for prayers.

Could the plan endanger Pakistani citizens or the wider world?

Since there was such widespread resistance from the country’s religious establishment against lockdowns, it can be argued that the 20-point plan was the most reasonable compromise that could be reached between the government and the religious establishment. The fact that the police have been allowed to enforce social distancing and that the Pakistani Government reserves the right to adjust the action plan if cases of COVID-19 rise support this suggestion. Furthermore, if the cases of COVID-19 remain low, it would make a good argument towards implementing the plan in other countries and, perhaps even for other faith groups, who have all suffered from the closure of religious spaces.

However, the move also presents a potential risk for not only Pakistan but also the world. Given that those infected with the coronavirus can remain infectious but asymptomatic for as long as two weeks, there is a risk that the immediate lack of confirmed infections could lead to a false sense of security among authorities and worshippers, compelling them to open religious spaces more, especially as the holy month of Ramadan draws near.

The risk also extends to other Muslim countries. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran have all faced pushback against the closures of mosques and religious spaces during the outbreak. This pushback could renew following Pakistan’s decision to adopt the plan, resulting in a premature and possibly deadly rush to reopen religious spaces.

Pakistan has, so far, 8,418 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 176 deaths.