© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Karachi
By Asif Shahzad
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Sabir Durrani says he offers prayers in a mosque in the central Pakistani city of Multan almost every day. He says that there are often a dozen or more men present – none of them wear protective face masks.
52-year-old Durrani is among thousands of devout Muslims who violate Pakistani government regulations late last month that ban religious communities of five or more to curb the spread of the corona virus. The disease has so far infected more than 5,300 people and killed 93 in the second largest Muslim country in the world.
"Our prayer guide told us that the virus cannot infect us as much as western people," Durrani told Reuters. "He said we wash our hands and we wash our faces five times a day before saying our prayers, and the unbelievers don't, so we don't have to worry. God is with us."
The Islamic lobby has a huge impact in Pakistan, a country of over 200 million people. Religious parties have been unsuccessful in electoral politics, but they are able to fuel large, often violent, crowds in religious matters, for example in support of the country's strict blasphemy law.
"Religion and prayers are an emotional issue for many people in Pakistan, and the government needs to be aware of that," Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan, told Reuters.
More than 60% of coronavirus cases in Pakistan have been linked to Muslims returning from Middle Eastern pilgrimages and supporters of the Tablighi Jamaat, an orthodox proselytizing group.
However, the concern is that the church's prayers in mosques, especially on Friday, the Islamic Sabbath, will cause a large increase. The number of people attending prayers is likely to increase within two weeks of the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, and the authorities are having difficulty coping with it.
While the Council for Islamic Ideology, a body that advises the government on religious issues, has asked clergymen and the public to cooperate with government measures, several priests and local leaders have spoken out against the ban.
A prominent leader of a religious party told a crowd of hundreds of people gathered at a funeral last week that government orders to limit communities are unacceptable.
"If you do this, we will be forced to believe that mosques will be abandoned on America's orders," Mufti Kafayatullah told the crowd. "We are ready to give our lives, but we are not ready to leave our mosques."
In Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, police were attacked for a second week in a row when they tried to end prayers in a mosque last Friday. A policewoman was injured in the clashes, and police fired shots in the air last week to quell an angry mob.
In other cities, the police seem to be ignoring some mosque collections.
Last Friday, one of the top Twitter trends in Pakistan was "Muslims, the mosque is calling you".
In the capital, Islamabad, hundreds gathered freely on Friday in one of the city's largest mosques, just three kilometers from the seat of the Pakistani government, including the Prime Minister's Parliament and Secretariat.
On March 27, authorities filed 88 cases against mosque administrations in Karachi and arrested 38 people for violating Friday parish restrictions. A day later, the charges were dropped and the people released.
"I think it is partly appeasing and partly the fact that Pakistan's governments and politics are permanently caught in an electoral framework in which they do not want to lose the support of the religious elite and the religious proletariat," said Pakistani author and defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqa towards Reuters.
Akbar, the Prime Minister's special assistant, said most mosques worked with the government.
However, he added, "This is a delicate matter, we don't want to impose it with a stick. And even if we wanted, there weren't enough sticks to put it all over Pakistan."
(Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hasan in Karachi, Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and Gul Yousafzai in Quetta; writing by Gibran Peshimam; editing by Euan Rocha and Raju Gopalakrishnan)