RAWALPINDI: As Friday prayers began in the main mosque here last week, worshipers filled the front courtyard. Late arrivals squeezed into the back and into overflow areas, disregarding the tape on the stone floor showing people where to stand to maintain social distance.
It was not just in Rawalpindi. Despite a rising number of coronavirus cases throughout Pakistan, officials in other major cities — Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore — described similar scenes during the holy month of Ramzan, which ends Saturday.
The large religious gatherings reflect the conflict between Pakistan’s powerful clerics, who successfully lobbied the government last month to allow congregational prayers, and health officials, who warn that the country’s fragile health system could be overwhelmed if current trends continue.
“This is the house of God,” said Mullana Hafiz Muhammed Iqbal Rizvi, the imam at the Jamia Mosque in Rawalpindi. “It’s our responsibility to make sure more and more people will come here.”
The number of coronavirus cases in this country of 230 million has quadrupled in the past month, jumping from 12,000 to over 48,000. And the rate of new infections is steadily rising: The number of cases increased 30 per cent in just the past week. More than 1,000 people have died.
Yet the country’s Supreme Court (SC) ruled on Monday that the coronavirus “apparently is not a pandemic in Pakistan,” and government officials, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, have suggested that the economic costs of prolonged restrictions outweigh the health costs of increased infection. The same influential religious leaders who called for the easing of restrictions for Ramzan are now demanding they be done away with completely for Eidul Fitr, a holiday that marks the end of the holy month.
The eased restrictions on religious gatherings put Pakistan at odds with other Muslim countries. In Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, mosques were closed during Ramzan to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and curfews are planned during Eid.
Mufti Muhammad Hanif Qureshi, a religious scholar in Karachi, said he expects people to participate in Eid prayers at his mosque “in huge numbers.”
“We demand the government to avoid any confrontation,” he said. “Otherwise, it will be held responsible for any law-and-order situation.”
Qaiser Sajjad, the secretary general of the Pakistani Medical Association (PMA), is in touch with doctors and hospital directors across the country. As each shutdown restriction has been lifted, he said, the medical community has become increasingly worried.
“This is a very bad time,” Sajjad said of the combination of accelerating infections and the lifting of restrictions. Even with a low death rate, he said, Pakistan may not have enough doctors to care for all the sick.
On a recent visit to the Jamia Mosque in Rawalpindi, the number of worshipers was significantly smaller than a normal Friday turnout, but none of the government guidelines — social distancing, mandatory use of face masks and the elimination of prayer mats — were strictly enforced.
While there were fewer worshipers at the Jamia Mosque last Friday, social distancing rules were not always followed.
Many of those who came to pray said they believed God would protect them from infection inside a house of worship. Others said the global pandemic made it more important for Muslims to attend mosque.
“This is a punishment from God, and we must ask his forgiveness,” said Raja Nasib Ali, a 46-year-old businessman wearing a surgical mask over a long beard dyed with henna.
Naveed Paracha, a 35-year-old employee of a garment shop, said he came to the mosque because he feels his faith is stronger than any virus. “Diseases come and go, but for Muslims, you always have to stand in front of God,” he said.
The Pakistani government never issued a countrywide lockdown, but by late March it had banned all international flights, and nearly all Pakistani provinces were under some form of shutdown, although most restrictions were poorly enforced. Restrictions began to formally ease in early May.
This week, schools and restaurants remained closed but markets, factories, tailor shops, salons and most public transit across the country had reopened.
And in markets and along commercial streets across Pakistan, the crowds are even greater than in the mosques. On May 11, images emerged of shoppers filling markets that stretched for blocks. People were packed so tightly together that there was little room to move, let alone maintain distance.
“This is terrifying,” Waseem Khawaja said of the images. Khawaja, the senior doctor at the main hospital in Islamabad treating coronavirus patients, said he had seen a sharp increase in the rate of new infections since Ramzan began.
With the approach of Eid, when people traditionally buy new clothing and visit distant relatives, Khawaja predicts infection rates will continue to rise.
Many Pakistani families are also growing concerned.
Fida Hussain, a father of three, has watched the virus spread through his neighborhood in Islamabad over the past two months, infecting more than a dozen people.
“This is very disturbing for us,” he said of the reopening. “It’s dangerous.”
For his family, Ramzan has been a time of stress, anxiety and isolation. Hussain said he made the decision not to return to normal life after seeing the devastating impact of the virus on countries with much stronger health-care systems, such as the United States and Britain.
Hussain’s brother-in-law, Taimoor ul-Islam, looked deflated when describing his decision not to pray at the mosque during the holy month, for fear of spreading the virus.
“There is not the kind of satisfaction as I had previously,” he said of praying at home. But, he added, “if I survive by not going to the mosque, I have the rest of my life to pray there.”
Originally published on The Washington Post