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Pakistan coronavirus news: Imams override Pakistan coronavirus blockade as Ramzan approaches | World News


ISLAMABAD: As clerics and governments across the Muslim world greet Ramzan this week under lockdown, working together to close mosques and urging worshipers to pray at home in Pakistan, some of the most prominent imams have gathered their devotees to ignore the anti-pandemic measures.

Ramzan, which begins in Pakistan later this week, is the holy month in which Muslims huddle in mosques and fast all day, celebrating after-sunset parties with family and friends. Those are ripe conditions for the spread of the coronavirus, and magnets around the world are asking people to stay home.

But in Pakistan, a pandemic or no pandemic, hardline clerics are making the decisions, overturning the government’s nationwide virus blockade, which started late last month.

Most clerics complied with the closure when it was announced. But some of the most influential immediately called on the faithful to attend Friday prayers in even greater numbers. The devotees attacked the policemen who tried to stand in their way.

As Ramzan approached, dozens of known clergymen and leaders of religious parties, including some who had initially obeyed the closure orders, signed a letter demanding that the government exempt mosques from closure during the holy month or invite anger of God and the faithful.

On Saturday, the government surrendered, signing an agreement that allowed mosques to remain open for Ramzan as long as they followed 20 rules, including forcing congregations to keep a 6-foot distance, bringing their own prayer mats, and making your ablutions at home.

When Prime Minister Imran Khan met with clerics on Monday, respectfully vowing to abide by the deal, critics demanded to know who was in charge during this national crisis: the government or the mosques.

“The state has become totally subservient to these clerics,” said Husnul Amin, an Islamabad-based professor and researcher of Islam and politics. “It is very difficult for the state to implement what is best for the public good. The greatest public interest is always against the clergy. It is completely undemocratic.”

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The military imitated Pakistan imams during the 1980s when mosques across the country produced jihadists to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan with the support of the United States.

While other countries tried to curb the influence of hardline clerics after the Afghan war, recognizing the dangers they posed, in Pakistan the powerful military continued to use them as tools of foreign and internal policy.

But his defiance of the blockade is exposing the limits of even military control.

The military wanted the shutdown, pressuring Khan to back the move at a time when he was reluctant and concerned about the economic cost. But when the security forces tried to prevent the faithful from gathering in the mosques to pray, they were attacked.

In Karachi, the largest city, scenes of worshipers emerged chasing the police through narrow alleys, throwing them with stones, and sending several officers to the hospital.

“The military has created a monster that they can no longer control,” said Amin. “They are the brainchild of the military, and only they could handle them. That may no longer be the case.”

When Ramzan approached, police officers were no longer willing to pull cords around mosques to stop prayer meetings.

While clerics acknowledge that their mosques are perfect vectors for the spread of the coronavirus, worshipers gather to perform ablutions together before going into mosques, shoulder to shoulder in supplication, they say they have to protect their bottom line: money and influence.

“We know that the coronavirus pandemic is a global health problem, but religious duties cannot be abandoned,” said Maulana Ataullah Hazravi, a cleric from Karachi.

And, he added, “mosques rely heavily on donations collected during Ramzan.”

That point, money, was high on the list of complaints the clergy raised in their letter last week.

The faithful open their wallets during Ramzan, donating millions of dollars. And in places like Pakistan, where mosques are not under the authority of the state, money can make or break imams and followers they are trying to build, often to participate in political power to challenge the government.

Pakistani clerics have frequently used their religious authority to get loyalists to besiege the capital, for example, by forcing the state to change policies with which they disagree.

That differs from countries like Egypt or the United Arab Emirates, where authorities give clergy guidelines or even specific comments for their Friday sermons.

“Clerics do not want to lose their social and political control over society. They fear that if Muslims do not come to mosques, they will lose their power, their influence,” said Amin.

Clerics, observers say, may worry that if the government forces its mosques to close during Ramzan, using the pandemic, in their view, as a cover, could provide an opportunity to finally put them under state authority.

An editorial in the prominent Dawn newspaper demanded that the clerical establishment be left in the background and let the government handle the crisis.

“This should not be seen as an affront to religion,” the editors wrote last week. “Rather, it is an attempt to save the life of the general public.”

But in private meetings with officials, clerics warned that the state would invite “the wrath of God” if it restricted prayers during Ramzan, Hazravi, the code for political chaos that imams have unleashed in the past, said.

While the government has given in this time, health workers have not. Prominent doctors signed their own open letter Tuesday, urging that mosques be ordered to limit attendance to five worshipers at a time. On Wednesday, they doubled down on their warnings at a press conference.

By Wednesday night, the virus had infected at least 10,100 in Pakistan and had killed about 210 people, according to authorities. Experts say the real numbers are probably much higher and that the government is not testing enough.

The country’s basic medical system, stretched out during normal times to combat preventable diseases like polio and dengue, is overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses have threatened to quit work unless they are provided with basic protective equipment such as masks and gloves. Several became ill with the virus and died.

“With Ramzan’s arrival,” the doctors letter said, “we fear that allowing large congregations in mosques will increase the likelihood of infection.”

But some of the faithful say they don’t care about science.

“Muslims wait this month throughout the year so that they can obtain the maximum rewards of God by fasting and offering our prayers,” said Hazrat Ali, a worshiper in Karachi, where many mosques defied closure from the beginning.

“If the government prevents us from forcibly visiting mosques, we will resist,” he said.

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